Ryan to captain Ireland against Italy in Sexton's absence

By Sports Desk February 22, 2023

Ireland second row James Ryan will captain the side in the absence of Johnny Sexton when they face Italy in the Six Nations on Saturday.

Andy Farrell's team head to Rome looking to preserve their perfect start to this year's championship, having so far picked up wins over Wales and France.

Fly-half and regular skipper Sexton suffered a groin injury against Les Bleus in week two however and has been ruled out of the trip to Stadio Olimpico.

In his place, Leinster forward Ryan will take charge for the visitors, with the 26-year-old acknowledging he must live up to the responsibility.

"It's obviously a huge honour," he said. "It’s very cool. It’s a great moment for me and my family to captain my country this week. It still hasn’t sunk in.

"We've got a good group, a core leadership group that has been there for the last couple of years. I have big shoes to fill.

"Being named captain is a huge honour, but I've still got to bring the best version of myself."

Ireland are favourites to take the championship crown after defeating France last time out, with the world number one side looking to push on in a World Cup year.

A much-improved Italy are still winless in 2023, but Ryan expects a sterner test than in encounters gone by from the Azzurri.

"They are at home, so they will play with plenty of emotion," he added. 

"They are obviously an improved team, particularly in attack. They seem to be playing with a lot of ambition.

"They've got some genuinely world-class players there. They are a very dangerous side with ball in hand. They are also strong up front.

"We saw them drive the England pack back a few times, which is no easy task. I think it will be a big challenge for us."

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    Italy boss Luciano Spalletti conceded the Azzurri were never in their Euro 2024 game against Spain and felt the defending champions were fortunate not to lose by more than a one-goal margin.

    Riccardo Calafiori's second-half own goal made the difference as Spain defeated Italy 1-0 in Gelsenkirchen on Thursday.

    The defender became the first Italy player to ever put through his own net in a European Championship match and a poor loss left the Azzurri with work still to do to secure progression from Group B.

    Spain fired off 20 shots to Italy's four, also creating 1.9 expected goals (xG) to the Azzurri's 0.18 and enjoying 57.2 per cent of the possession, with La Roja clinching their place in the knockout rounds.

    Spalletti was honest in his post-match assessment, with a huge clash against Croatia in Leipzig to follow on Monday.

    "It is a result they [Spain] deserved and beyond the one-goal difference," Spalletti told reporters.

    "They deserved to win it and we were never in the game

    "Besides the final 20 minutes of the match we were never able to create situations which would allow us to actually compete against a brand of football of this level.

    "They caused us problems larger than the scoreline suggested, let’s not beat around the bush. 

    "Spain were a team on the night and we were not able to be a team."

    If they are to lift more silverware in Berlin next month, Italy will need a dramatic improvement, as attempting just four shots in the match meant it was their fewest on record (since 1980) in any Euros game.

    By contrast Spain, who were drawn into what many believed to be the toughest group at the tournament, have  made light work of some difficult opponents, thrashing Croatia 3-0 before comfortably overcoming Italy.

    They have clinched top spot in Group B with a game to spare, while Italy are second on three points, two clear of Croatia and Albania going into the final round of games.

    Finding a way to increase his players' energy levels was on Spalletti's mind going into the clash with Zlatko Dalic's side.

    Spalletti added: "Maybe I needed to give them more rest, I probably need to give them more days off.

    "We gave them a day and a half off in terms of rest and we saw that was the right decision in terms of our data.

    "But there was too much of a gulf, we were constantly stretched, we probably didn't recover very well in terms of just how demanding and important the [start of the] tournament was itself, because there was too much of a gulf in terms of sharpness and freshness.

    "You can't necessarily talk about anything else, overall. If you don't have the same stamina as the opposition, obviously you can't do things with the same reactivity, the same speed of reaction."

    If Italy are able to secure second place in Group B, they will face the runners-up in Group A, a position currently held by Switzerland, in the last 16.

  • De la Fuente hails Spain squad as world's best after Italy win De la Fuente hails Spain squad as world's best after Italy win

    Spain coach Luis de la Fuente believes he is working with the best group of players in world football after La Roja clinched their place in the Euro 2024 knockout rounds by beating Italy.

    Spain were drawn into what many believed to be the toughest group at the tournament but have made light work of some difficult opponents, thrashing Croatia 3-0 before overcoming Italy 1-0 on Thursday.

    They have clinched top spot in Group B with a game to spare, with Riccardo Calafiori's own goal handing them their deserved victory over the reigning champions.

    Spain fired off 20 shots to Italy's four in Gelsenkirchen, also creating 1.9 expected goals (xG) to the Azzurri's 0.18 and enjoying 57.2 per cent of the possession.

    This is just the second time La Roja have started a European Championships tournament by winning their first two games to nil, after they beat Czechia 1-0 and Turkiye 3-0 in 2016.

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    While De la Fuente now has the luxury of being able to rest players against Albania on matchday three, he knows there can be no room for complacency in the last 16.

    "I think we were superior across the board from a footballing perspective," he added. "Perhaps it even seemed that Italy played badly, but that's because we played very well.

    "Italy won the Euros three years ago. We're still a long way off winning the European Championship. We haven't yet achieved anything. Okay, we've won some important matches. We have wonderful prospects.

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  • Euro 2024 data dive: Pedri matches Ronaldo feat, Hjulmand stunner denies England Euro 2024 data dive: Pedri matches Ronaldo feat, Hjulmand stunner denies England

    Thursday's action at Euro 2024 brought our first group winners in Spain, and plenty of frustration for England.

    Before La Roja clinched top spot in Group B by overcoming Italy, the Three Lions were pegged back in a 1-1 draw with Denmark, who were arguably unfortunate not to win the game. 

    Despite an underwhelming performance, Gareth Southgate's team remain in control of Group C with four points, after Slovenia and Serbia drew 1-1 earlier in the day.

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    Slovenia 1-1 Serbia: Jovic rescues last-gasp draw

    The early kick-off delivered yet another late twist as Slovenia were denied a landmark victory at the European Championships with the last kick of the game in Munich. 

    Having seen efforts by Aleksandar Mitrovic and Dusan Vlahovic repelled by the imperious figure of Jan Oblak, Serbia found themselves behind as Zan Karnicnik's goal put Slovenia on the cusp of their first-ever win at the Euros. 

    However, Luka Jovic had other ideas. The Milan striker rose the highest from another Serbia corner, heading the ball beyond Oblak to score the latest result-altering goal in a Euros match of all-time (excluding extra time), with his equaliser timed at exactly 95 minutes. 

    The result keeps both side's chances of making the last 16 of the competition alive, but for Slovenia, it could have been a memorable day in Munich. 

    Matjaz Kek's side remain winless at the Euros from their five matches (four draws, one loss). Karnicnik's opener was just the second time they had gone ahead in a game at the competition; the last time they did so was during a 3-3 draw with Yugoslavia at Euro 2000. 

    But for all of Serbia's attacking intent, their lack of clinical edge in the final third proved costly despite their late goal. Just four of their 15 shots were on target, with talisman Mitrovic having an afternoon to forget. 

    With his six shots in the match, Mitrovic had the most of any player in a single game at Euro 2024.

    With the Al-Hilal striker having failed to find the back of the net, it means the last four players to have more than six shots at a European Championships have not scored - the other three coming at Euro 2020. 

    Denmark 1-1 England: Scrutiny piles on Southgate

    While the other game in Group C finished with the same scoreline, the encounter will not be remembered in a hurry, in particular for England fans. 

    Harry Kane opened the scoring in Frankfurt. His opener was his fifth goal at the Euros, becoming the first England player and eighth player overall to score five or more goals at both the men's World Cup and European Championships.

    He also became the third man to score at four different major international tournaments for England, along with Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney.

    But Morten Hjulmand equalised with what was his first goal for Denmark in all competitions (in his ninth appearance). It was also Denmark's ninth goal from outside the box at the European Championship, with only three teams netting more on record (since 1980 – Germany 15, Netherlands 12, France 11).

     

    Denmark's leveller was the eighth goal England have conceded from outside the box at the Euros. No side has conceded more on record in the history of the competition (since 1980, Portugal are level with the Three Lions).

    There have been 13 goals scored from outside the box at Euro 2024, already more than there were in the entire group stages of Euro 2020 (12).

    England have now won just two of their last eight competitive meetings with Denmark (four draws, two losses), having won each of their first four such games against them.

    Spain 1-0 Italy: Pedri matches Ronaldo feat, unwanted history for Cristante

    In the final game of the day, Spain produced another dominant performance to clinch top spot in Group B with a 1-0 win over defending champions Italy.

    Riccardo Calafiori's second-half own goal made the difference, the defender becoming the first Azzurri player to ever put through his own net in a European Championship match.

    He is also just the second Italian to score an own goal at a major tournament (World Cup/Euros) overall, after Cristian Zaccardo versus the United States at the 2006 FIFA World Cup, which Italy won on German soil.

    If they are to lift more silverware in Berlin next month, they will need a dramatic improvement, having attempted just four shots in a tame performance on Thursday – their fewest on record (since 1980) in any match at the Euros.

    Spain, on the other hand, look like genuine contenders after following up their 3-0 thrashing of Croatia with another deserved victory. They have won their first two games of a European Championship tournament to nil for just the second time, previously doing so in 2016 (1-0 versus Czechia, 3-0 against Turkiye).

    Fabian Ruiz produced an energetic performance in the heart of La Roja's midfield, winning possession in the final third on six occasions, the most by any player in a Euros match since David Silva in a 2008 quarter-final between Spain and Italy (also six).

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    There was a piece of unwanted history for an Italy midfielder, though, as Bryan Cristante received a yellow card just 20 seconds after coming off the bench at the start of the second half, the quickest booking for a substitute on record at the Euros (since 1980).

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