Italy ultimately proved too strong for Northern Ireland’s Men’s Under-17s in the second of their three games in a qualifying round for the 2020 U17 Euros staged in Luxembourg.
The Italians took an early lead in the match at Stade Municipal in Rumelange which they never really looked like relinquishing - and they eventually ran out 2-0 winners.
However, Northern Ireland played some fine football during the 90 minutes, and especially in the second half.
Northern Ireland keeper Conner Byrne was in scintillating form, producing a string of fine saves, while Italian keeper Gioele Zacchi saved a Charlie Allen penalty on 76 minutes to maintain his side’s two-goal cushion.
Stephen Frail’s team, who lost 4-0 to Turkey in their first match in a four-team tournament which acts as a qualifying round for the U17 Euros next summer, carved out a couple of chances early on, however on 11 minutes they fell behind when forward Luca Magazzu fed midfielder Alessio Rossi and he found the back of the net.
The boys in green and white tried to bounce back quickly but Italy keeper Zacchi saved well from Sean McAllister.
Italian striker Alessio Rosa had a couple of efforts saved before it was Northern Ireland’s turn to attack. A well-struck McAllister free-kick was blocked and Isaac Price missed the target.
On the stroke of half-time Italy doubled their lead in controversial circumstances. The referee missed an obvious foul on a Northern Ireland player, and a hand ball by an Italian, in the build-up to a move which eventually saw Magazzu sweep the ball home.
Northern Ireland controlled possession for large parts of the second period, and caused the Italians all sorts of problems down the flanks, although Italy continued to create chances.
Midfielder Federico Casolari missed the target for Italy when well placed before Byrne produced another great save, this time keeping out a Tommaso Baldanzi drive. And moments later Ramen Cepele fluffed a good opportunity.
Another McAllister free-kick stung the palms of Zacchi on 72 minutes before Allen had a shot blocked.
Northern Ireland had a great chance to pull a goal back in the 76th minute. Magazzu conceded a penalty for a foul on McAllister. Substitute Allen took the spot kick but Zacchi saved it.
As the game drew to a close Byrne had to be on his toes again to keep out a Federico Zuccon piledriver, Tommaso De Nipoti missed the target and Byrne saved another Rossi effort.
The 2-0 defeat means Northern Ireland will now play Luxembourg tomorrow (30 October) to see who finishes third in the group. Stade Henri Dunant in Beggen is the venue for the match, which is scheduled to kick off at 7pm.
Turkey, who defeated Luxembourg 4-1 in their second game, will play Italy tomorrow to see who tops the group, however both teams have already qualified for an elite round next March.
Eight elite round group winners and seven runners-up with the best records against the teams first and third in their pool will join Estonia in the finals from 21 May to 6 June next year.
Northern Ireland U17s team v Italy U17s: Conner Byrne, Sean McAllister, Aaron Donnelly, Lewis Mackinnon, Conor Bradley, Cameron Stewart, Dale Taylor, Dane McCullough, Isaac Price, Ross McCausland, Jamie McDonnell. Substitutes: (used) Ciaran McGuckin, Charlie Allen, Sean Stewart, Orrin McLaughlin; (not used) Conor Manderson, Stephen McGuinness, Charlie Lindsay, Matthew Walker, Caolan McBride.
Image: Conner Byrne produced a string of fine saves against Italy’s U17s.