Aggression and daring tactics ensure memorable Ireland victory

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The Boys in Green boss made the bold decision to drop a number of erstwhile key players for the game against the Azzurri and it paid off


GOAL ANALYSIS 

A significant upping of the aggression ante, combined with the late addition of Wes Hoolahan's craft, is what saw Martin O'Neill's Republic of Ireland vanquish Italy to qualify for the knockout phase of Euro 2016.

O'Neill dispensed with the dysfunctional 4-4-1-1 formation that resulted in a capitulation against Belgium in Bordeaux and sprung a surprise by opting for an attack-minded 4-1-4-1/4-3-3 shape, with Shane Long in a right wing role and Daryl Murphy leading the line.

Citing age-related fatigue in his pre-match interview with RTE, O'Neill controversially omitted John O'Shea, Wes Hoolahan and Glenn Whelan from the starting XI. Ciaran Clark was also, unsurprisingly, dropped after contributing to two concessions in Ireland's first two games. 

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Meanwhile, James McCarthy, who had a hand in three of the four entries in the Irish goals against column, was extremely fortunate to retain his starting berth. But, defying expectations, the Everton midfielder shone against Italy, in Whelan's usual role at the base of the Irish midfield.

McCarthy's game-high tally of six interceptions was integral to Ireland successfully repelling a toothless Italian attack. While McCarthy won the ball by taking up good positions, it was James McClean, in his first tournament start, that typified Ireland's all-action approach to what was a must-win game.

Despite his technical limitations, McClean justified cries against his exclusion in Bordeaux by rabidly pursuing the right side of the Italian defence, setting the tone for an unusually high-pressing Irish outlook. The Derry native completed five successful tackles, three more than any other player on the night.

And, while the success rate of his typically ragged on-the-ball running was low at 40 per cent, McClean drew more fouls than any other player, in a game that was chock-full of petty infringements.

One such foul, committed in the area by the callow Fiorentina midfielder Federico Bernardeschi, should probably have resulted in a penalty kick for the ill-starred Irish, who have suffered significantly at the hands of the officials in France. Angelo Ogbonna's earlier unfriendly arm around the neck of Murphy also raised eyebrows.

Despite their belligerent approach, Murphy's 21st-minute header, from a Robbie Brady corner, was the best chance Ireland could muster until the latter stages. Restricted only to long-range potshots at times, the game was crying out for the guile of Hoolahan to unlock the famously resilient Azzurri defence.

When the Norwich City midfielder did arrive, in a 77th-minute swap for McCarthy, Ireland survived a near-miss within seconds of his arrival. Hoolahan's introduction coincided with a change of shape to 4-2-3-1, which allowed Italian substitute Lorenzo Insigne to dribble into the space vacated by McCarthy and rattle a post from range.

That substitution produced another unintended consequence in the 85th minute, when Aiden McGeady's pressing gave way to a one-on-one between Hoolahan and the shaky Italian goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu. A hesitant Hoolahan fluffed his lines, only to immediately redeem himself by drifting wide to escape the attentions of Thiago Motta and deliver the inswinging cross that an untracked Robbie Brady headed home.

Although Antonio Conte's wholesale personnel changes, for a game in which he didn't need a result, significantly tempers the import of this Irish victory, O'Neill deserves great credit for making the alterations that won the day.

Ireland's unlikely front three of Murphy, Long and McClean gave the Italian back three no quarter, setting the tone for what was a relentless team performance. While it was a performance that undoubtedly lacked incision until Hoolahan's crucial intervention, it is nonetheless one that will - and should - be richly hailed and cherished. 

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