Stade Pierre-Mauroy was the place to be on Wednesday night if you were an Irish fan. Martin O'Neill's Irish team were there to play their final group game against Italy. The game came on the back of an awful defeat to Belgium. Since that game the Irish squad had come in for some serious criticism from all corners of the Irish footballing world. Their performance against the Belgians was very disappointing and the pressure was now on to come up with a positive result against the Italians. In fact, the only way Ireland could advance in the tournament was to win the game.
Irish fans travelled with a lot of hope, but many were very worried about the outcome of the game. How was Martin O'Neill going to lift a squad who had been so down after the defeat by the Belgians? One thing for certain was, another performance like the one against the Belgians and the Irish team would be coming home. So how did it develop on the night? What was to be the outcome against an Italian side who had already qualified from the group?
When the team sheet was handed into UEFA by Martin O'Neill, to say he had sprung a few changes would be the understatement of the century. He had decided to go with a new centre half pairing of Keogh and Duffy, he also put James McClean in from the start. Up front he took a huge gamble and started Darryl Murphy who has yet to find the net for an Irish team.
The Irish manager's team talk must have had the players climbing the walls before kick off, because after only two minutes Seamus Coleman put a challenge in on his opponent that set the tone for the rest of the game. The Irish got stuck in and rattled the Italians, a side not afraid to dish out the hard stuff as well. It was the up and at them attitude that all the Irish fans wanted to see. If this Irish team were to fail in their search for a victory at least they would have done it by giving it everything in the locker.
Ireland without a doubt should have been awarded a penalty in the first half when the brilliant McClean was pushed over in the penalty area. It was an awful decision by the Romanaian referee, who was sent home from the tournament on Thursday, probably as a result of his performance in the game. Not getting the penalty could have destroyed the Irish confidence but it seemed to only push them on even more.
Irish fans travelled with a lot of hope
Late in the second half it seemed that all the hard work would show for nothing as Ireland could just not break down a strong Italian defence. It was just not happening and the tactic of trying to nick a goal from a corner or free kick was been dealt with excellently by the Italians. Then in the eighty fourth minute a golden opportunity to take the lead fell to Wes Hoolahan, he got in clean on goal and only had to hit the ball either side of the keeper to score. It was unbelievable when he struck the ball straight at the keeper. You could literally hear everyone's heart in Ireland stop as Wes held his head in his hands.
The Hoolahan miss would probably be the one thing the Irish fans would talk about over the coming years. Wes must have wanted the ground to open up and swallow him. He could so easily have gone into his shell and hide away for the rest of the game, but instead in the blink of an eye he crossed a brilliant ball for Robbie Brady to head home and send the Irish fans into football heaven. It was one of the best team goals of the tournament and ironically the move was started by Robbie Brady inside his own penalty area. I still do not know how he had the energy left in his legs to run the full length of the pitch and get into the Italian penalty area. It was a goal richly deserved by the Irish and their whole work ethic on the night was fantastic.
Martin O'Neil had to be so proud of his players for one of the best performances by an Irish side ever to enter a football field. Brady,s goal had put them through in what many people said was the toughest group in the competition.
I still do not know how he had the energy left in his legs to run the full length of the pitch
Next up for Ireland is France in the last sixteen. A game against the hosts that will be a tough challenge. It is also a game that has the added spice of the Irish owing the French one, everybody remembers the Henry hand ball goal back in 2009.
Martin O'Neill will not have much of a team talk to do, as all the players will want to repay the hosts for their cheating antics in that World Cup Qualifier. Last Wednesday night the football gods shined down on the Irish team and their fans. On Sunday Ireland will come to a stand still and you will not get a vacant seat in the pubs and restaurants, the atmosphere will be rocking, and if the team manage a win you will have lift off.
There is only one way that Ireland can win the game in my opinion and that is to go at the French right from the start. The hosts will be under huge pressure and hopefully the Irish can burst their balloon early on. Can you imagine the scenes if Ireland get an early goal? On Sunday it will all be sorted out by the footballing gods and no matter what the outcome is, the Irish fans will party well into the night and maybe the coming week. Come on You Boys in Green.