Stephen Barry reports from Turner’s Cross
WILFRIED GNONTO ROBBED the Ireland U21 side of a thoroughly deserved three points with a 96th-minute equaliser to maintain Italy’s unbeaten record in tonight’s game in Cork.
Jim Crawford’s charges looked about to shoot to the top of their European qualifying group with a brilliantly executed game plan against the top seeds before the Leeds United striker’s deflected heart-breaker.
The Azzurrini hadn’t conceded a goal in their first four games but they were plundered for two at Turner’s Cross by Killian Phillips and Sinclair Armstrong. Each time, however, Gnonto found the leveller, first from a penalty and then a header.
It denied the Irish international set-up a much-needed feelgood story and a first win over their under-21s’ bogey team in seven attempts dating back to 2012.
There was an on-field scuffle at the end but the night did finish with Ireland climbing a place into second in Group A due to Norway’s 2-0 loss to Turkey. They lie just one point behind the Italians at the midway point of the qualifiers.
Crawford made two changes from Friday’s 3-2 defeat to Norway, with Crystal Palace clubmates Seán Grehan and Phillips coming in for Connor O’Riordan and Kian Leavy.
Italy, backboned by the team that finished runners-up at the Under-20 World Cup in June, had plenty of firepower. Gnonto, holder of 13 senior caps, led the line and they even had the luxury of a regular Premier League starter on the bench in Burnley winger Luca Koleosho.
Their first-touch passing threatened to carve Ireland open early on but each time they were shut down by the likes of Bosun Lawal, Sam Curtis, Grehan, and Anselmo García MacNulty.
When they were dissected by Matteo Prati’s pinpoint Pirlo impression, Gnonto slid his sidefoot effort wide, and Ireland were able to limit the influence of both dangermen for the most part.
Armstrong had appeared frustrated early on, skewing one acute shot out for a throw-in, but he changed the game with a blistering run in the 31st minute. It was started by Phillips’ full-blooded tackle to win a goal kick and finished by the same man as Ireland went from back to front in a silky move.
Armstrong collected the ball from Aidomo Emakhu’s flick-on by the left flank before beating Italy captain Lorenzo Pirola on the inside. His endline cut-back was miskicked by Curtis but it fell perfectly for Wycombe Wanderers loanee Phillips to finish first time.
But a third penalty conceded in four games would cost Ireland in stoppage time, even if this one owed more to misfortune than the others. Gnonto’s shot deflected off of Curtis and Lawal leaned across ever so slightly to handle the ball. The Leeds hitman stepped up to send Josh Keeley the wrong way.
Italy were sufficiently worried by their first-half showing to remove striker Pio Esposito for a midfielder in Leicester City’s Cesare Casadei, while PSG’s Cher N’Dour, tipped as the next Pogba, was soon sacrificed for Koleosho.
By then, Ireland had regained their lead. Within two minutes of the restart, Grehan’s in-swinging cross almost found the net but when it came back off the far post, Armstrong was on hand to knee the ball home.
Koleosho, making his under-21 debut, gave Italy a cutting edge down the left. He dribbled through three Irish defenders to tee up Giovanni Fabbian but Keeley reacted instinctively to save.
As Italy floundered, Emakhu kept Ireland on the front-foot and he almost wrapped it up when winning back possession high up the field. Sebastiano Desplanches made the fingertip save, however, and Armstrong couldn’t reach the rebound.
Italy almost stole a share of the spoils in the final minute of normal time when Gnonto’s shot from outside the box drilled the butt of the post and Mattia Zanotti’s follow-up effort was seized upon by Keeley before it crossed the line.
But Ireland couldn’t hold out as the clock ticked over the five minutes of added time as Edoardo Bove’s blast bounced to Gnonto and his header deflected off of the luckless Matt Healy to wrongfoot Keeley.
IRELAND: J Keeley; S Grehan, B Lawal, A García MacNulty, S Curtis, M Healy, B Adeeko, K Philips, S Roughan (O Adaramola 90+1); A Emakhu (A Murphy 90+4), S Armstrong (J Kenny 82).
ITALY: S Desplanches; M Zanotti, D Coppola, L Pirola, R Calafiori (R Turricchia 83); E Bove, M Prati, C N’Dour (L Koleosho 56); G Fabbian (G Ambrosino 76); P Esposito (C Casadei h-t), W Gnonto.
Referee: L Tschudi (SUI).