Ireland braced for a stern test in Italy

Eileen Gleeson’s makeshift squad facing an experienced home side ten places above the Republic in the world ranking

After the crushing blow of the anterior cruciate ligament injury sustained by Jamie Finn in training on Thursday, the mood in the Republic of Ireland camp won’t be at its most upbeat going in to Friday’s friendly against Italy in Florence (kick-off 5.15 Irish time, live on the RTÉ News channel).

But Eileen Gleeson’s team will have to pick themselves up in preparation for a game that should be a decidedly sterner test than any of those they faced in last year’s Nations League.

Ireland breezed through that campaign, winning all six of their games, scoring 20 and conceding just two, but all of their opponents – Hungary, Northern Ireland and Albania – rank outside the world’s top 40, with the Albanians in a lowly 73rd position.

In contrast, Italy are at 14 in the world list, 10 places above Ireland, so are likely to provide the kind of examination this Irish team needs before it begins its Euro 2025 qualifying campaign in April, the draw for which takes place on Tuesday week.


Ireland are certain to be in a group with at least one powerhouse – pot one’s Spain, the world champions, France, Germany or the Netherlands – and could also land themselves reigning European champions England, who are in pot two.

Stern tests are needed, then, for Gleeson to gauge her team’s progress ahead of those challenges, and Italy should provide one.

She is hampered, though, by the absence of three of her midfielders, Denise O’Sullivan and Tyler Toland, who are both recovering from minor knee injuries, and Sinead Farrelly, who has had a limited preseason with NJ/NY Gotham after suffering concussion in her last outing for Ireland at the beginning of December.

Louise Quinn’s run of 22 consecutive games, only Courtney Brosnan matching that number, is likely to end due to the shoulder injury she picked up playing for Birmingham City last month. But Gleeson stated earlier this week that she was hopeful the central defender would be available for next Tuesday’s friendly against Wales in Tallaght.

On the upside, Gleeson was able to summon Niamh Fahey, Leanne Kiernan, Aoife Mannion and Jess Ziu for the first time in her reign as Irish manager, all four having recovered from injuries that kept them out of the squad for spells ranging from seven to 17 months. Mannion has, though, only played a couple of minutes for Manchester United since her return from medial collateral ligament damage, so is unlikely to feature too heavily against Italy.

Similarly, Megan Campbell, an option in a back three or at left-back, hasn’t had a huge amount of playing time this season, so Gleeson could opt for Caitlin Hayes, Fahey and Diane Caldwell at the heart of her defence, with Heather Payne to its right.

Whether she chooses to play Katie McCabe on the left, or push her further up the field as she did during the Nations League campaign, will be of interest. If the latter, then Izzy Atkinson, who has had an impressive start to life at Crystal Palace since joining them from West Ham last month, could fill that slot.

Megan Connolly and Ruesha Littlejohn are the most experienced midfielders available to Gleeson for this game, so, fitness permitting – always an issue in Littlejohn’s case – they are likely starters. Lily Agg and Ziu are options too, as are Peamount United youngsters Erin McLaughlin and Jess Fitzgerald who replaced O’Sullivan and Toland in the squad.

As of Thursday, English-born striker Emily Murphy was still awaiting international clearance to play for Ireland, Gleeson having been keen to have a closer look at the 20-year-old who plays her football in North Carolina with Wake Forest University. With a Dublin-born father, the process should – probably – be a formality for Murphy, but paperwork has a habit of dragging its feet.

After her five goals in six Nations League games, Kyra Carusa will expect to retain the central attacking role, even if she’s still in preseason with San Diego Wave, with Lucy Quinn, Abbie Larkin, Amber Barrett, back in the squad after being left out last time around, and Kiernan, hoping to get the nod to support her.

Italy’s squad features 17 of the 23 players they brought to the World Cup where they, like Ireland, failed to get out of their group. But they gave a glimpse of their potential when they beat a Spanish side, that included nine of their World Cup final-winning starters, in their own back yard in December.

Added to the squad since the World Cup are Brosnan and Payne’s Everton team-mates Martina Piemonte and Aurora Galli who scored the goals against West Ham last Sunday that gave the club their first home win of the season.

In the nations’ last six meetings, Italy have won five and drawn one, so a test it should most certainly be. And the Italians have an added incentive to prevail.

“The emotional weight of this game will be massive,” as their coach Andrea Soncin put it in reference to it being the 140th and final appearance of Sara Gama for her country, the Juventus defender made captain for the game having announced she will retire from international duty after it.

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Mary Hannigan

Mary Hannigan

Mary Hannigan is a sports writer with The Irish Times