Jonathan Browne reports from Tallaght Stadium
On a windy night in Tallaght, the Ireland U21s lost 2-0 to a strong Italy side. A mistake in defence gave Italian forward Lorenzo Lucca an easy goal in the first half before a counterattack late on gave Italy their second. Italy were the better side throughout, but from start to finish Ireland looked competitive and on another day could've draw that match. A second half chance for Ross Tierney was well-saved but Jim Crawford's men gave Italy a tough challenge.
It may have been a loss but there were many positives to take from it. Italy are a strong side full of players that play in Serie A but Ireland held their own. There even was a few impressive displays from a number of players. Here are just a few.
— RTÉ Sport (@RTEsport) November 12, 2021
Standout performances for the Ireland U21s
Many were crying out for Kilkenny to get called up to the senior squad and it's easy to see why. The Bournemouth midfielder was top drawer last night. His first touch is as soft as velvet and he was very quick in possession. Italy tried to put pressure on him but he had enough skill to get out of tight situations where many would've just gotten rid of it. For a lot of the match Ireland struggled to hold onto the ball but Kilkenny was able to get a hold of possession and get Ireland to reset and start a new attack.
He was brought off at 75 minutes but he was still Ireland's best player. He's a calming presence in midfield and himself and Conor Coventry have formed a formidable partnership in the centre of the park. Kilkenny is very much ready to take the next step to Stephen Kenny's first team and should do so in the new year.
This was Smallbone's first match for Ireland U21's since coming back from an ACL injury last January and he didn't disappoint. He along with Conor Noss and Colm Whelan were Ireland's main attacking threats in the first half. He occupied the right wing and was very good working with Noss down the flank to get crosses in.
In the second half then he moved into his more preferred central role and helped Ireland get out of a few tough situations. He also whipped in a few nice free kicks and corners but to no avail. Ireland really lacked an aerial talisman who could hold the ball up as the Italian defenders bullied the diminutive Irish attack. Perhaps if Koyade had started a couple of Smallbone's crosses could've lead to something. But regardless, the Southampton man looked like he hadn't missed a game and with time will only get better as he gets more settled into this team.
The Bray Wanderers goalkeeper is a great example of how young players can stay in Ireland and develop into a good players their game. Maher came through St Kevin's Boys and St Pats before joining Bray last year and he has developed into a fine goalkeeper. He may not be the tallest of keepers but he has brilliant reflexes. He made a couple of immaculate saves to keep Ireland in the match.
Most impressively was his eagerness to progress the ball. As time went on and Ireland were behind, Maher would sprint out with the ball looking to throw it to the full-backs and start an attack. He was visibly frustrated at times that players weren't making themselves available, a sign of any good keeper. He was also very composed with the ball at his feet, turning the Italian striker Lucca with a nice Cruyff-turn. Maher is certainly in the same mould as Gavin Bazunu and has confidence exuding out of him.
Minds have shifted onto the next match against Sweden next Tuesday. It nearly has to be a must-win for Jim Crawford's men if they are to qualify for the Euros in 2023.