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'If Stephen needs him this evening, he won't let anybody down'

Jim Crawford has backed Nathan Collins to shine if required against Cristiano Ronaldo and co.

Ireland's Nathan Collins could be set for a competitive debut against Portugal tonight.
Ireland's Nathan Collins could be set for a competitive debut against Portugal tonight.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

IRELAND U21S boss Jim Crawford has backed Nathan Collins to shine if needed against Portugal tonight.

Stephen Kenny’s side are expected to line out with a back three at the Aviva Stadium this evening.

Ordinarily, Andrew Omobamidele would be expected to feature alongside Shane Duffy and John Egan, but it was confirmed earlier that the Norwich youngster has missed out on the matchday squad through injury.

Collins is the only other recognised centre-back in the squad, and so could come in for his competitive international debut, although Seamus Coleman is also an option, having slotted into a three-man defence in the past both for Ireland and Everton.

Crawford has worked with Collins previously, both at U21 level and in the Emerging Talent Programme, and believes the 20-year-old is well capable of performing to a high standard even up against the world-class likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Bruno Fernandes.

“I’ve worked with Nathan a long time,” he said at a press conference today. “We brought him into the 21s where he played some crucial games for us in the last campaign. But even before that, working with him in the Emerging Talent Programme, he’s got a cool head, fantastic ability and nothing will faze him. He just went into the Burnley team and he’s been outstanding there. So if Stephen needs him this evening, he won’t let anybody down.

“He is a fantastic talent and I know he’ll nail down a place sooner rather than later with the senior team. He’s a great person and a fantastic footballer.”

Crawford himself has a big game to focus on tomorrow, as Ireland U21s host Italy at Tallaght Stadium (kick-off: 5.30pm).

The Irish boss recognises that facing the group favourites will be a tough task, though a win is much needed, particularly after the Irish team’s surprise loss away to Montenegro last month.

Crawford believes the Italians are stronger than in the last campaign when an Irish team that featured Troy Parrott, Adam Idah and Dara O’Shea among others earned a creditable 0-0 draw with their rivals in Tallaght Stadium.

On this occasion, the visitors have players with plenty of first-team experience in Serie A and Serie B, with Crawford citing Lorenzo Lucca (Pisa), Lorenzo Colombo (SPAL), Matteo Lovato (Atalanta) and Nicolò Rovella (Genoa) as being among their important squad members.

One individual that they will be without, however, is AC Milan’s Sandro Tonali, after the playmaker was recently called up to the senior team.

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“He’s one player that’s been playing for AC Milan week in week out and he’s been promoted to the senior team,” Crawford says. “They have a boy [Samuele] Ricci that can come in and do an effective job, so they’ve a massive player pool to draw from and that’s one of the advantages of pot one countries, they’ve got a quality pool of players to work with.

“So in one sense, it’s great that he got pushed into the senior team. But in another sense, somebody else is going to come in and they’ll still be an effective unit anyway.

“I know he took a lot of their set pieces and they used to play through him a lot, that player who had the ability to find those passes that unlocked doors. But there’ll be someone else that can come in and be of similar quality to him.”

On the match itself, Crawford added: “Looking at the broader picture, it’s a challenge in itself playing against one of the giants of European football and it’s a real opportunity for players to gauge themselves against this type of quality.

“It’s something that the players are looking forward to. We’ve done a hell of a lot of work in the build-up to the game, so hopefully, all goes according to plan tomorrow.”

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Paul Fennessy

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