Everything is possible as Ireland look to scale Israeli wall to reach first ever Euros – The Irish Times

Under-21 European Championships 2023, Play-off qualifier, first leg: Republic of Ireland v Israel, Tallaght stadium, 7pm kick-off, Live on RTÉ 2

Historic barriers can be torn asunder by Jim Crawford’s men doing what no Irish under-21 side has managed to do before – qualify for a major tournament (Brian Kerr and Damien Duff guided Ireland to a bronze medal at the under-20s World Cup in 1997).

“As I said to the players already, it’s 17 attempts to get this far with the 21s,” said Crawford on the eve of the first leg at a sold-out Tallaght, allegedly. “I think that’s 34 years of playing under-21s football and this is the furthest we’ve got. We’re two games away from a place in the finals so it’s unchartered territory.”

Uncharted but not unknown. Israel guarantee choppy waters during this two-legged affair, coming to Dublin with a potentially golden generation after their under-19s reached last summer’s Euros final, losing 3-1 to England, while the senior team sit atop of their Nations League group.

“They are a very good team,” said Crawford. “They’ve got pace up top, the boy [Osher] Davida, who can play wide like Aaron Connolly, or up top – he’ll shoot from distance.”

Connolly is certain to feature as it would presumably shatter the 22 year old’s confidence to be demoted from the senior panel only to go unused.

“He’s sharp,” added Crawford. “He’ll be a goal threat, that’s for sure.”

Davida at Standard Liége in Belgium and Ilay Elmkies in Austria are the only visiting players at foreign clubs, which is an Israeli strength.

“They have quick players, if you switch off for any instant they will hurt you. They have really talented footballers, Kanaan, Gloukh who plays with Maccabi Tel Aviv…they are coming here on the crest of a wave at the minute.

“They have technicians. [Oscar] Gloukh with Maccabi Tel Aviv, played with the 19s last year, he can carve open teams, make runs forward, and he can score goals. [Mohammed] Kna’an is another technician.

“Defensively, they’re aggressive. They are organised in terms of getting into defensive block which they did against Germany and Poland. They defend deep, they can counter attack at pace and get lots of bodies in the box.

“We’re well aware of their style of play. No matter what, it’ll be a challenge for the players, an amazing experience and something they’re looking forward to.”

Thankfully Crawford finished his Israel review on an upbeat note as Ireland must take this leap without injured regulars, Gavin Kilkenny, Mark McGuinness, Liam Kerrigan, Joel Bagan and Conor Noss.

It can always be worse at under-21 level, especially if skipper Conor Coventry had more minutes for West Ham or Will Smallbone’s form at Stoke City was rewarded or Evan Ferguson caught fire at Brighton.

“Stephen has asked about certain players – he has asked to keep [the names] private – but there are players who are definitely on his radar and that might be a case in November, where we’ve no games and it might be an opportunity to experiment with the friendlies [Norway and Malta] that were just announced.

“But with the group that got us this far I was confident we would keep the names you said there, be it Will Smallbone, Conor Coventry, Evan Ferguson.

“Again, as everybody seen, Stephen brought up 10 players but that opened the door for other players to show their worth and they have done – we have got to the play-offs. So when June comes, if Stephen takes up certain players from this particular squad it is an opportunity for other players to shine.”

The Israeli media are particularly interested in Finn Azaz, mainly because he can switch allegiance to them or England, after the surprise call-up, having excelled on loan from Aston Villa to Plymouth Argyle.

“Finn is ready to play,” said Crawford. “He has settled in with the group very well. Somewhere along the line I have no doubt we are going to see some new caps.”

And some old. Connolly, like record caps holder Coventry, will turn 23 before next summer’s Euros in Georgia and Romania (players only need to be eligible at the start of each campaign). A brilliant under-21 performer way back in 2019, his demotion, along with the rapid Festy Ebosele, who also plies his trade in Italy, is a timely boost.

“I’d see him as a striker,” said Crawford when pressed on Connolly’s best position. “What he offers with his pace, when he gets turned running at defenders from deeper areas he will cause problems but it’s also safe in the knowledge that if you have to play him out wide then he can do a job out there, but certainly I see him as a nine.”

Kerrigan’s torn cruciate offers Connolly the chance to raid off the wing as opposed to Crawford redesigning the system around him at the expense of Ferguson, who is – touch wood – a generational talent on the cusp of his Premier League breakthrough.

Losing high-calibre midfielders like Kilkenny and Noss might prove too damaging against this Israeli side, not that Dawson Devoy or Joe Hodge have ever lacked for technical ability, or perhaps Azaz is Ireland’s ace in the hole.

Nothing is certain, everything is possible.

Republic of Ireland U21 squad:

Goalkeepers: Brian Maher (Derry City), Luke McNicholas (Sligo Rovers), David Odomosu (St. Patrick’s Athletic)

Defenders: Eiran Cashin (Derby County), Festy Ebosele (Udinese), Anselmo Garcia McNulty (NAC Breda, on loan from Wolfsburg), Andy Lyons (Shamrock Rovers), Jake O’Brien (RWD Molenbeek, on loan from Crystal Palace), Lee O’Connor (Tranmere Rovers), Joe Redmond (St. Patrick’s Athletic), Sean Roughan (Lincoln City).

Midfielders: Finn Azaz (Plymouth Argyle, on loan from Aston Villa), Conor Coventry (West Ham United), Dawson Devoy (MK Dons), Joe Hodge (Wolves), Adam O’Reilly (St. Patrick’s Athletic), Will Smallbone (Stoke City, on loan from Southampton), Ross Tierney (Motherwell).

Forwards: Aaron Connolly (Venezia, on loan from Brighton & Hove Albion), Dara Costelloe (Burnley), Evan Ferguson (Brighton & Hove Albion), Joshua ‘JJ’ Kayode (MK Dons, on loan from Rotherham United), Ollie O’Neill (Fulham), Mipo Odubeko (Port Vale, on loan from West Ham United), Tyreik Wright (Bradford City, on loan from Aston Villa).

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