U21 qualification on a knife edge after Irish defeat in Pisa
Qualification is now out of the young side's hands.
The Irish u21 side were dealt a potentially fatal blow to their EURO 2021 qualification hopes after a weakened Italian side beat them 2-0 on Tuesday afternoon.
Jim Crawford's first game in charge did not go according to plan, as a goal in either half from an effectively u20 Azzurri side saw them leapfrop Ireland in Group 1 (on head to head record) with a game in hand.
While Italy's side was drastically weakened due to Covid-19 issues in the u21 camp, Ireland were also shorn of a number of key players in Caoimhín Kelleher, Jason Knight, Dara O'Shea, Adam Idah, Jayson Molumby, Troy Parrott and Aaron Connolly through a combination of injury and Senior call-ups.
The first half ebbed and flowed, with both sides enjoying phases of dominance. Ireland looked keen to impress their game on Italy, with Jim Crawford continuing very much in the heads-up style of play employed by Stephen Kenny in his time in charge of the u21 set-up.
Ireland did struggle somewhat in the final third, with Michael Obafemi looking routinely isolated and forced to drop deep at times to pick up the ball. Jack Taylor had the first real chance of the game in the ninth minute when a half-cleared cross dropped to him on the edge of the box, his dipping shot flashing just wide of the Italian 'keeper's right-hand post.
Zach Elbouzedi and Darragh Leahy found quite a bit of joy down the left flank in the opening 45 minutes, a cross from the Dundalk left back that flashed untouched across the six-yard box was perhaps Ireland's best chance of the first half.
But, equally, Italy threatened down their left wing, with Gianluca Frabotta in particular proving a regular thorn in the Irish side. Patrick Cutrone spurned a couple of chances, before a loose pass from Conor Coventry on the edge of his own box allowed Riccardo Sottil to waltz through before blazing over.
However, just minutes later on the stroke of half time, Sottil took his chance at the second time of asking. The Cagliari winger cut in from the left-hand side, beating Conor Masterson before unleashing a fierce shot past Gavin Bazunu into the far corner.
The second half began in similar style, with half-chances for both sides in the opening five minutes. Will Smallbone first whipped in a free-kick from the left that was barely scooped over the bar by the Italians, before Bazunu got down smartly to stop a half-cross-half-shot from Samuele Ricci.
As Ireland pushed for an equaliser, it was the Italians who grabbed their second of the day. Cuttrone lost Nathan Collins in the box far too easily, ghosting in behind the Stoke City defender before clipping the ball into the far corner.
Despite a number of changes in the final period, the game petered out without any real punch thrown by Ireland in response to that second goal.
Under the Covid-shortened qualification process, the nine group winners automatically qualify, while the top five runners-up also go to the tournament.
As Ireland are in a group of six teams, points gained against the bottom side are automatically disqualified (Armenia or Luxembourg in Ireland's case). Ireland will now need to beat both Luxembourg and Iceland in their final group games in November, and hope results elsewhere fall their way.