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Ryan Byrne/INPHO Lee O'Connor and Anthony Elanga compete for the ball.
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'I know Anthony from my time at Man United... It was a good battle'
Lee O’Connor put in an impressive shift as Ireland U21s overcame Sweden.

FORMER CLUBMATES were in direct opposition as Ireland U21s took on Sweden on Tuesday night.

Anthony Elanga has arguably been the star of the group stages so far, with six goals from seven games.

Yet in Tallaght, he was kept relatively quiet.

The 19-year-old winger, who scored once in two Premier League appearances for Man United last season, was singled out as a threat by Irish boss Jim Crawford ahead of the game.

Yet for all his attacking prowess, Elanga was at times reluctant to track back, allowing Irish right-back Lee O’Connor plenty of time and space amid his marauding runs up the touchline. 

Crawford admitted afterwards this was an area the Irish team set out to exploit.

“Yeah, it’s something we tried to work on. Will Smallbone would play a little bit narrow, getting Lee up the pitch. He put in some fantastic crosses as well and everybody knows Lee’s qualities, he did exactly what we asked.

“We said: ‘Today, it’s about yourself getting forward, crosses and he’s a threat from the attacking side of it because again, we’ve got three defenders who will shuffle over, midfielders who will shuffle over, to protect that space.”

“Anthony’s a good player,” O’Connor, who is spending the season on loan from Celtic in League Two with Tranmere, said afterwards.

“I know Anthony from my time at Man United. He’s a great player. He gave me problems at times. I gave him problems at times. I thought it was a good battle throughout the game. 

“No matter who you come up against, you have to make them work the other way as much as he’s going to run at me, I’m going to run you the other way. And if you don’t come with me, I’m going to make you pay for it. I thought we exploited that quite well.”

On the match in general, O’Connor acknowledged the importance of the win in reviving a qualification campaign that had been threatening to peter out prematurely.

“I think we deserved it. We had the better chances throughout the game. It was a really good feeling throughout the camp and I think it will still be there come March [when they face Sweden in the reverse fixture].

“That win puts us right back in it going into March. Everyone’s absolutely ecstatic with it.”

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Sweden must be sick of the sight of O’Connor in particular. Along with Conor Coventry, he was the only starting player to feature in both the Irish U21 side’s wins over Sweden in the last campaign under Stephen Kenny. He even scored a crucial equaliser in the November 2019 clash between the teams at Tallaght Stadium to help turn the game in Ireland’s favour.

“I think the difference is with last year’s campaign, we’re a lot younger,” he says. “I wouldn’t say we’re inexperienced but there’s a lot of younger lads.

“I said before when we go to places like Sweden, it’s down to me, Brian [Maher], Conor [Coventry], all the experienced players, we have to show our experience there and help everyone through it. But tonight even Ollie [O'Neill] came on, he’s what, 18? I thought he was fantastic when he came on and obviously grabbed the winner for us.

“Bar the blip in Montenegro, I think we’ve got better as each game has come. I know we were disappointed the other night against Italy but we weren’t maybe as great on the ball, though the defending was okay at times. I think we put it all together [on Tuesday], I think we defended excellently for 90 minutes and we played good football as well. 

Jim Crawford recently suggested O’Connor has in the vicinity of 70 caps at all levels for Ireland, including an appearance at senior level in a friendly with New Zealand.

Helping this team become the first Ireland U21 side to qualify for a major tournament would consequently be a fitting end to a stellar underage career.

“[The Sweden win] puts us right back in it. This is my last campaign with the underage setup, it’s something I want to do. We all said that we want to be the first 21s to get there and that’s put us in with a good shout come March.”

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