Staring into the jaws of group stage exit with a sole point on the board and time running out, the Republic of Ireland thrillingly snatched late victory over Italy on Wednesday night to progress to the European Championships last-16.
Martin O’Neill’s side were just five minutes away from being eliminated when Robbie Brady’s headed winner sparked jubilant scenes in Lille.
And the party atmosphere and emotional triumph even brought joy to the snarling face of assistant manager Roy Keane.
Brady’s 85th minute finish saw the Republic of Ireland advance to the knockout stages of the tournament for the first time, displacing Turkey as one of the four best third-placed sides. There they will now face hosts France in Lyon, with the prospect of a quarter-final against neighbours England if they can navigate that fixture. Italy meanwhile were already scheduled to play holders Spain in the next round, as they topped Group E with 6 points whilst Vicente Del Bosque’s men fell behind Croatia in the Group C standings.
That very prospect in fact, may well have aided Ireland in claiming their famous victory.
Antonio Conte fielded a weakened eleven with Iniesta and co. awaiting, as mainstays like Gianluigi Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini, Graziano Pelle and Daniele De Rossi watched from the sidelines. The Azzuri no doubt still expected to win and Ireland still had to beat what was in front of them, with Italian replacements wanting to prove their point, but the performance from the group leaders was a far cry from the efficient machine that had picked off Belgium and Sweden to great acclaim.
Were O’Neill’s men lucky in that case to meet this version of Italy rather than in the first round of group matches a week ago? Probably, but it was nevertheless a valiant display with everything on the line and it couldn’t have happened to a harder working bunch of players. Midfield scrapper James McClean in particular was the epitome of that last night on his first start in the competition, but there wasn’t an Irishman inside of Parc Olympique Lyonnais that didn’t put a shift in, including legions of fans who remained buoyant in their support even before the goal.
Such was the emotion that materialised at the end of ninety minutes, substitute Italy goalkeeper Buffon got caught up in the Irish celebrations, heading onto the pitch to embrace Keane and O’Neill with a warm hug.
Football is after all about taking your chances, and on Lille in Wednesday the Republic of Ireland (finally) took theirs. For the Boys in Green and their passionate followers, the party rolls on.