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Robbie Brady, Jeff Hendrick superb as Republic of Ireland stun Italy 1-0

So much of Ireland's tournament history has been defined by games against Italy. From the pride despite Toto Schillaci in 1990 to the madness because of Ray Houghton in 1994; from the humiliation of a final nail in a cheap, cardboard coffin in 2012 to this, the latest fitting chapter in an unlikely see-saw rivalry. Yes, Ireland might only be through because of how their schedule fell -- Antonio Conte's second-string Azzurri were there in bodies but not minds -- but some nights are too big for caveats.

For so long, it was a game that looked as if it would be all about referee Ovidiu Hategan, whose performance dwarfed the ineptitude of even Ireland in their loss to Belgium. A push in the back of James McClean, an elbow to the neck of Shane Long and a textbook headlock against Daryl Murphy were all overlooked for penalties, as were endless kicks, trips and pulls in Italy's game-breaking tactics that rarely brought about a yellow. And still Ireland leave after one of the nation's truly great sporting nights.

Remarkable. Unbelievable. Spectacular. Special.

ItalyItaly
Republic of IrelandRepublic of Ireland
0
1
FT
Game Details

Player Ratings (1-10; 10=best. Players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating)

GK Darren Randolph, 8 -- He has been one of the team's best performers in the group stages despite giving up four goals. There was rarely the risk of another getting past him other than one strike that hit the post, but for a player that was to be a liability, his composure on the ball was as impressive as it was heart-stopping for a nation watching through fingers.

DF Seamus Coleman, 6 -- It looked as if he'd provide a neat microcosm for Ireland's night. Got forward, but his touch was poor at crucial times. As one of the more highly rated players in the land, he needs to offer a much better end product in the knockouts.

DF Shane Duffy, 9 -- Every mansion needs some incredibly strong foundations. His lack of pace never mattered after a nervous opening; his physical presence set a tone at both ends of the pitch.

DF Richie Keogh, 7 -- If Duffy replaced Ciaran Clark as expected, his inclusion at the expense of John O'Shea had many thinking Martin O'Neill had lost his mind in desperation. But soccer is a strange game as the decision swung from pre-game madness to genius in 90 minutes.

DF Stephen Ward, 7 -- Battered by Federico Bernardeschi, bruised by Andrea Barzagli -- but Ward was still standing tall at the end. His crossing needs serious work, but that's about all you could fault him for during a game in which he was up and down the line from start to finish.

MF Robbie Brady, 9 -- At a tournament in which Ireland were relying on size and set pieces, he was going to be key for his deliveries. Caused havoc from corners and free kicks, especially in the opening period. Many thought he'd finish with an assist; instead, he got on the end of one.

MF Jeff Hendrick, 9 -- Very similar to his performance against Sweden, in which he commanded the middle but offered silk as well as concrete. Has been his country's player of the tournament, and while it won't worry him for now, he'll have turned the heads of those in the Premier League's middle tier. Nearly scored a brilliant goal in the first half off his left.

Robbie Brady's set-piece deliveries were expected to be key, but he ended up scoring the vital goal instead.

MF James McCarthy, 8 -- Technicolor after the grey of the opening two games, his work rate and physicality troubled Italy, but he also got forward and linked often.

MF James McClean, 8 -- He may not have the quality, but nobody put in as much effort or wanted it more, which is saying something considering the efforts of those around him. Should have had a penalty thanks to his direct running, which causes problems even if there's a finish often missing.

FW Daryl Murphy, 9 -- Perhaps no one else played more above themselves. There was no sign of his first international goal, but after injury woe, bench time and ridicule, this was the exclamation mark at the end of a troublesome sentence. Led the line.

FW Shane Long, 6 -- Came to France red hot, but now we're not sure if he's even lukewarm. Took a lot of punishment, but unlike previous games, he can't blame the service or tactics. This was more about his form, which Ireland badly need to return.

Substitutes:

MF Aiden McGeady, N/A -- Sometimes it's better to stay quiet when you've nothing nice to say.

MF Wes Hoolahan, N/A -- Villain to hero, and that took as much character as skill. Missed the chance of the game, then made up for it with the cross of the game. Gutsy.

MF Stephen Quinn, N/A -- On to run out time as the clock ticked toward history.

Ewan MacKenna is ESPN FC's Republic of Ireland blogger for Euro 2016. Twitter: @EwanMacKenna

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