After a solid start to their qualifying campaign, Republic of Ireland Under-21 manager Noel King is hoping his side can defy expectations against Group 7 leaders Italy on Monday as they bid to keep alive their dream of reaching the UEFA European Under-21 Championship finals.
The young Irish side currently sit third behind the Italians and Turkey, who inflicted a 1-0 defeat on King's charges in Manisa in September. Ireland followed that loss up with back-to-back successes against Liechtenstein, having kicked off with a home win against Hungary, and a victory against Italy – who hold a 100% record from their five games – would keep them in with a shot of clinching the group or claiming one of the four best runners-up spots.
Looking ahead to the showdown in Sligo, King believes his side have the fighting spirit needed to cause a shock. "No team is unbeatable," said the 55-year-old Dubliner. "Football, as we all know, throws up shocks. It never works the way it's supposed to work, and the way it's supposed to work in Sligo is: Italy should beat Ireland, and they should go on to qualify. But I think we will show a little bit of spirit and try to ensure that we surprise people."
King knows the size of the task in hand after doing his homework on the Azzurrini, but he is taking faith from past encounters between the two. "I have watched the Italians; they are a really, really top-class team. It's a mammoth task for us; probably people don't think we have a chance at all.
"We have a half-decent record against the Italians at the various levels and we've often put in good performances against them, and hopefully they don't like playing against us and our style. We'll give them a warm Irish reception."
Lessons will be learnt from the defeat in Turkey, but King has promised that the team will remain faithful to their strengths as they aim to prove the doubters wrong and make the finals. "The positive thing [from the Turkey defeat] was that we didn't surrender and we created opportunities," he said.
"The expectation from outside the team is zero. The expectation even from Irish people would be low, but I'm only concerned about the expectation in the dressing room and I'm reasonably happy with that expectation. I'm confident that the fighting spirit will turn up.
"I don't want to think about the finals. What I want to think about is the next game, and if we change our mind and start dreaming without working for the dream, we're at nothing. So we take one game at a time. It couldn't be tougher than the Italy game, but let's see what happens."
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