Ireland's Will Smallbone celebrates scoring a goal with Eiran Cashin. Ben Brady/INPHO

Smallbone stunner the highlight as Ireland edge closer to Euros qualification

If Italy avoid defeat against Sweden on Thursday, Jim Crawford’s men will be guaranteed second spot at least.

Ireland U21s 3

Montenegro U21s 1

IRELAND EARNED a deserved 3-1 win at home to Montenegro this evening, as they edged closer to qualification for the European U21 Championship.

Goals from Will Smallbone, Liam Kerrigan and Tyreik Wright secured an important victory that leaves them on the cusp of a runners-up spot in the group at least, as Viktor Dukanovic registered a late consolation for the visitors.

Ireland went into this fixture a point behind Group F leaders Sweden though with a game in hand, while they also trailed the Italians by a point, with the Azzurri having played a game less than the Boys in Green.

Boss Jim Crawford made five changes from the team that beat Bosnia 3-0 last week. Oisin McEntee, who went off injured on Friday, along with Joel Bagan, Gavin Kilkenny, Ross Tierney and Mipo Odubeko all made way.

There were U21 debuts for Derby County’s Eiran Cashin and Tayo Adaramola of Crystal Palace, while Conor Noss, Joshua Kayode and Liam Kerrigan were also handed starts.

Captain Conor Coventry retained his place in midfield and in doing so, the West Ham youngster broke the record for all-time appearances at U21 level with his 25th cap, surpassing former Arsenal youngster Graham Barrett in the process.

With qualification no longer possible for Montenegro, they went into the match with nothing but pride to play for.

Miodrag Vukotic’s side sat second from bottom with two wins, two draws and four losses from eight matches.

They did, however, manage to pick up a surprise 2-1 victory over Crawford’s side in the reverse fixture last October, as the visitors were left to rue a disastrous start and a missed Coventry penalty.

Revenge will have been the least of Ireland’s motives though, with a win putting them in a strong position for second place and a spot in the playoffs at the very least.

It was easier said than done, however, and Montenegro threatened early on. After Adaramola conceded possession in a dangerous area, Viktor Dukanovic got on the end of a low cross but his effort was deflected wide.

The hosts struggled to get going amid a stop-start first 10 minutes and it was the Montenegrins who appeared to settle quicker.

There were a few nervy moments for Ireland as the half progressed — Cashin was in the right place to clear off the line as Danilo Pesukic’s corner deflected goalwards.

There were some awkward moments down the other end too, such as when goalkeeper Nikola Ivezic clattered into his defender Anto Babic as the latter cleared a probing through ball.

Chances were few and far between in the opening half an hour, but Conor Noss went close as his purposeful run inside the area culminated with a last-ditch block on the goalbound effort.

As half-time neared, UCD’s Kerrigan got the crowd on its feet, beating his man down the right before his cross was parried out for a corner by the goalkeeper.

From the ensuing set-piece, Smallbone’s low corner was met by Noss, whose deflected effort was saved with relative ease.

Ireland would not be denied for much longer though. In the 41st minute, a set-piece into the area was only half-cleared. Good hold-up play by Kayode set up Smallbone on the edge of the area, and the Southampton midfielder took a touch on his chest before unleashing a stunning low strike that arrowed into the corner of the net.

It continues an impressive window so far from Smallbone, who also hit a brace in the victory over Bosnia.

The game was far from won though, and the away side started the second half brightly.

Nikola Krstovic showed good pace on the break to escape the attentions of Cashin initially, but the Derby defender got back to make a strong recovery tackle.

The visitors went close minutes later, as Krstovic’s initial effort was parried away by Brian Maher, before the follow-up was blazed over by Pesukic.

Shortly thereafter, Ireland doubled their advantage. Cashin headed a pinpoint Smallbone set-piece across goal and Kerrigan was on hand to take a touch before finishing well for his first goal of the campaign and give the hosts some much-needed breathing space.

Ireland then made it three in stylish fashion in the 67th minute. Evan Ferguson had only just come on the pitch as a substitute and made a pacy run down the right before picking out the onrushing Tyreik Wright with a low cross, and the Aston Villa youngster slotted home with a first-time finish at the near post.

The hosts were looking in an increasingly confident mood now and Smallbone’s low cross almost picked out Wright in the box after a fine, free-flowing counter-attack left them threatening a fourth.

Moments later, Kerrigan and Cashin both almost scored from close range, after a corner caused problems in the Montenegro area.

Out of nothing then, the visitors grabbed a late consolation. Dukanovic finished clinically, after getting on the end of Dorde Saletic’s low cross.

But it was a rare negative moment amid a good day for Ireland, as they saw the game out fairly comfortably, and there was still time for Ferguson to miss a gilt-edged chance, as he headed just off target after Smallbone’s powerful free-kick had been parried.

All eyes now turn to Italy’s clash with Sweden. The Italians beat Luxembourg today to go top of the group and if they pick up another three points on Thursday, or if the match ends in a draw, it will guarantee second spot at least and a place in the playoffs for Crawford’s side. 

Ireland: 1. Brian Maher 2. Lee O’Connor 3. Tayo Adaramola (Lyons 84) 4. Mark McGuinness 5. Eiran Cashin 6. Conor Coventry 12. Conor Noss (Kilkenny 64) 18. Tyreik Wright 10. Will Smallbone 22. Liam Kerrigan 9. Joshua Kayode (Ferguson 64)

Subs: 16. Luke McNicholas 7. Gavin Kilkenny 8. Dawson Devoy 13. Jake O’Brien 14. Oliver O’Neill 15. Andy Lyons 17. Ross Tierney 19. Evan Ferguson 20. Ademipo Odubeko

Montenegro: 1. Nikola Ivezic 4. Ognjen Obradovic 5. Anto Babic 7. Nikola Janjic (Vukcevic 69) 11. Danilo Pesukic 17. Dorde Saletic 10. Viktor Dukanovic 14. Milos Brnovic (Krstovic 60) 19. Ivan Vukcevic (Mijovic 60) 20. Zaim Divanovic (Strikovic 86) 9. Nikola Krstovic

Subs: 12. Peter Radulovic 6. Srdjan Krstovic 8. Lazar Mijovic 15. Peter Vukcevic 16. Ognjen Gasevic 18. Ognjen Bakic 23. Vuk Strikovic

Referee: Jan Petrik (CZE)

Attendance: 3,126

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