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Carlo Cudicini challenges Ireland's Under-21s to get back in contention

Carlo Cudicini has challenged the Republic of Ireland to drag themselves back into the race for European Championship qualification by defeating his native Italy.

The Republic face the Group 2 leaders in Waterford on Thursday evening still smarting from their 1-0 defeat in the reverse fixture in Vicenza last year.

However, former AC Milan, Chelsea and Tottenham keeper Cudicini, now Ireland's Under-21s goalkeeping coach, is convinced they can turn the tables this time around as they prepare for a key double-header with a trip to Slovenia to follow on Monday.

He said: "It is a strong Italy Under-21s squad and they are highly regarded at home. The number of players with Serie A experience is quite high and they naturally benefit from that.

"They are the favourites in the group, but the performance we put into the game in Vicenza gave us real confidence. We defended very well that day and had chances on the counter-attack, but just didn't take them.

"We have two difficult games this week with Italy and then over to Slovenia, who have done good work in developing young players recently, but we feel we can get back in the group with some good results."

Ireland currently sit in fourth place in the group, four points adrift of leaders Italy but knowing that situation could have been very different.

They travelled to Vicenza in October boasting a 100 per cent record after their opening three fixtures, but ultimately emerged empty-handed.

However, the scoreline did not tell the full story of a game which saw the home side play out the final 20 minutes with just 10 men after striker Federico Bernardeschi had been sent off for a second bookable offence within four minutes of what ultimately proved to be substitute Vittorio Parigini's winner.

Noel King's men slipped to a damaging 3-1 defeat in Lithuania the following month on a night when Italy could only draw 1-1 in Serbia, and they know there is now little margin for error.

King will have midfielder Jack Byrne at his disposal after the 19-year-old spent the first part of the week training with Martin O'Neill's senior squad.

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