The Republic of Ireland deservedly booked their place in the last-16 of the 2016 European Championship finals after Robbie Brady’s dramatic late goal finally broke Italy’s resistance in Lille.
Ireland had dominated large parts of the game, but just as it seemed they wouldn’t find the net, Brady’s smart 85th minute header booked them a mouth-watering clash with hosts France on Sunday.
Irish success meant that there was to be no Turkish delight this time around as Fatih Terim’s team were no longer one of the best third-place finishers and exited the tournament.
Having already qualified as Group E winners, manager Antonio Conte made eight changes to his Italian side, with only Alessandro Florenzi, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli retaining their places from the win over Sweden.
Meanwhile, opposing boss Martin O’Neill made four Irish changes for this must win game with Shane Duffy, Richard Keogh, James McClean and Daryl Murphy coming into the side.
Ireland showed their determination early on by putting in a series of crunching challenges, and had the first serious attempt on goal in the tenth minute.
Ipswich Town’s Murphy did well to feed Jeff Hendrick, and the Derby midfielder hit a crisp 25-yard strike just inches wide of Salvatore Sirigu’s right-hand post.
It was the Irish who threatened again on 21 minutes, when Murphy saw his powerful header from a wonderful Brady corner tipped over the bar by Sirigu.
Ten minutes later, a cross from Brady was headed over at the far post by Duffy, as O’Neill’s Green Army continued to dominate. Minutes later, goalkeeper Darren Randolph produced the most skillful moment of the first-half as he used a Cruyff turn to escape the attentions of Simone Zaza.
Ireland continued to look dangerous from a number of well placed free-kicks, but Italy finally posed a real threat on 43 minutes when Ciro Immobile fired just wide from 22 yards.
Just moments later; Ireland were denied a clear penalty when a nice move resulted in McClean being felled in the area after Federico Bernardeschi thrust an elbow into the winger’s back. Romanian referee Ovidiu Hategan was strangely unmoved though and waved frantic Irish appeals away.
The first big chance of the second-half went to Italy on 53 minutes, when Zaza volleyed a cross from Mattia de Sciglio just over Randolph’s crossbar from 12 yards.
Meanwhile Ireland had two early free-kicks in good crossing positions, but first Brady and then Hendrick disappointingly curled them too far and out of play.
Excellent work from Murphy created a chance for Seamus Coleman on 57 minutes, but the full-back’s drive was well blocked by West Ham United’s Angelo Ogbonna.
Six minutes later, Derby’s Hendrick had his team’s next effort on goal, but he eventually dragged a shot harmlessly wide of Sirigu’s goal.
Substitute Aiden McGeady then ran at the Italian defence shortly after coming on, but fired his shot over the bar as Ireland struggled to create clear cut chances.
It was the Azzurri’s substitute Lorenzo Insigne that came the closest to breaking the deadlock so far when he cut inside and smashed a shot off the base of Randolph’s post.
With just six minutes remaining Ireland finally had the chance they had been craving all night. Substitute Wes Hoolahan found himself clean through on goal after an awful error from Barzagli, but his tame effort was parried by Sirigu and caught at the second attempt.
However, just as it looked as though they’d blown it, Hoolahan made amends in brilliant fashion by whipping in a delightful cross for Brady to expertly head home, and in doing so sent thousands of Irish supporters into raptures.
A potentially nervy five minutes remained, but Ireland held firm to qualify from Group E in third place as a result of being one of the best third-placed teams.
Man of the Match: Robbie Brady (Republic of Ireland)
The Norwich City wing-back capped an energetic and committed display with the goal that meant Ireland qualified from the group stages of the European Championships for the first time in their history.
He also put in a number of excellent crosses including the one for Murphy’s first-half header. Brady has been linked with a move back to the Premier League after Norwich’s relegation and this display will have done him no harm.
Ireland have quite a short turnaround as they meet hosts France in Lyon on Sunday afternoon at 2pm. Meanwhile, despite winning Group E, Italy have the misfortune of having to take on consecutive tournament winners Spain, after La Furia Roja could only come second to Croatia in Group D. This huge clash will take place on Monday at 5pm in the Stade de France.