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U21 boss urges Obafemi to make his case to Kenny in today's clash with Italy

The Republic of Ireland resume their U21 European Championship qualifying campaign this afternoon in Pisa.

THIS AFTERNOON IN Pisa (4pm Irish time), Italy will be leaning on their U20 team in a bid to keep their hopes of qualifying for the U21 European Championship on track.

Just over a month since their campaign was derailed by a surprising 3-0 loss in Sweden, the Italians host the Republic of Ireland in a top-of-the-table clash in Group 1.

Although they have the benefit of a game in hand, suffering another defeat would represent an enormous blow to Italy’s prospects of reaching next year’s tournament, which is being jointly-hosted by Hungary and Slovenia.

jim-crawford Republic of Ireland U21 manager Jim Crawford. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Ireland, who hold a three-point lead, will line up against an Italian side today that’ll look very different to the one with whom they played out a goalless draw last October in Tallaght.

An outbreak of Covid-19 in the Italy squad led to the postponement of their clash with Iceland in Reykjavik last Friday. With the number of players who have tested positive rising to seven yesterday, the Italian Football Federation has taken the decision to field its U20 team against Ireland instead.

While that may initially be interpreted as an advantage to the visitors, manager Jim Crawford was left scrambling on the eve of the game to source footage and information on a completely different set of players to the one he had previously been preparing for.

It presents an unorthodox challenge for Crawford in the first game of his reign. The 47-year-old, who had been Stephen Kenny’s assistant in the U21 set-up, took charge earlier this year following Kenny’s promotion to the senior job.

He also has personnel challenges of his own to address. Troy Parrott is injured, while Adam Idah, Aaron Connolly, Jayson Molumby, Jason Knight, Dara O’Shea and Caoimhín Kelleher are all on senior duty ahead of tomorrow’s meeting with Finland.

Ireland have found the net 12 times so far in this U21 qualifying campaign, but the players responsible for eight of those goals will be unavailable today in Pisa.

michael-obafemi Michael Obafemi could have a big part to play for the Ireland U21s today. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Michael Obafemi will therefore shoulder much of the responsibility in attack, despite recently making it clear that he wasn’t pleased about being overlooked for a senior call-up.

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Obafemi, along with Lee O’Connor, is one of two players in the squad with senior international experience. However, opportunities have been limited at Southampton so far this season for the 20-year-old striker, who has made just one substitute appearance in the Premier League.

“As I said before the camp, I had a long conversation with Michael and he said that he was looking forward to coming in and that he was going to give everything. He’s been true to his word since the first minute he arrived,” Crawford said.

“Michael is bubbly anyway, that’s his nature, but when it comes to training sessions he’s very effective. He’s looking forward to the challenge. 

“I know things haven’t been great for him at club level – I think he’s played just over 25 minutes with Southampton – but what an opportunity and platform this is for him to go and prove himself to the manager at Southampton and to the [Ireland] senior manager, to say: ‘Don’t forget me in your plans because I can play at this level.’

“We’ve had numerous conversations and he’s very well-focused.”

Screen Shot 2020-10-12 at 17.56.43 Source: Uefa

Italy may have been forced to summon their U20 squad to fulfil this fixture, but they do hope to have four U21 players available for selection too. Included in that quartet are midfield linchpin Sandro Tonali, who recently joined AC Milan, and Wolverhampton Wanderers (on loan at Fiorentina) striker Patrick Cutrone.

A positive result this afternoon would go a long way towards securing Ireland’s place at an U21 European Championship for the first time. Jim Crawford’s side will conclude their qualifying bid with a double-header of fixtures next month against Iceland (home, 12 November) and Luxembourg (away, 17 November). 

The nine group winners and five best runners-up (excluding results against the sixth-placed team) will join the two host countries in the tournament, the schedule for which has been amended as a result of the impact of Covid-19. The group stages of the Euros will be held between 24 and 31 March, before the knockout stages take place from 31 May to 6 June.

“The players know how big this game is,” Crawford said. “Whoever Italy decide to put out, they’ll be well up for it. The players have taken on the information that has been given to them and they know that we have to give a good performance to get a result.”

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Paul Dollery

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