Connor Ronan’s deflected first-half free kick was enough to send an unconvincing Ireland under-21 side into a first-ever Toulon Tournament semi-final as they edged out Bahrain.
Stephen Kenny’s side put in a lethargic performance in the heat and humidity on a poor surface Stade Jules-Ladoumegue in Vitroles on Sunday afternoon.
The Boys in Green will face Brazil in the semi-final on Wednesday after topping their group on goal difference after Mexico could only manage the same scoreline against China.
Ireland will require a much improved performance in Aubagne on Wednesday evening as they were left hanging on in the latter stages they should have won comfortably.
Captain Jayson Molumby saw his penalty saved minutes after Ronan’s 33rd-minute opener and the Irish goal led somewhat of a charmed life in the second half as Bahrain sensed an upset.
Caoimhin Kelleher had to be at his best to deny the tricky Sanad Saleh after he manoeuvred a shooting position brilliantly, and the Irish defence held out for a second successive clean sheet.
The group leaders started slowly in difficult conditions against a side who weren’t in any way overawed their opponents.
Bahrain had a shot within the opening 30 seconds and continued to probe in the early stages, captain Mohamed Marhoon driving a free kick from a promising position over the bar.
Ireland gradually got their passing game going and a fluid move beginning at the back with Dara O’Shea finding Connor Ronan ended with Ahmed Mubarak putting Zack Elbouzedi’s cross behind.
Despite Ireland dominating possession, Bahrain continued to create and Kelleher was forced into a smart stop to deny Adnan Alshirah.
Elbouzedi was forced off before the half-hour after falling awkwardly on his shoulder following an innocuous-looking foul from Alshirah.
He was replaced by Ireland’s top scorer, Adam Idah, which necessitated a switch to the left wing for the exciting Brighton & Hove Albion striker Aaron Connolly.
Connolly showed nimble footwork to slalom through three challenges before ignoring the better-placed Idah to take on the shot, but his effort lacked the power to trouble Mohamed Ahmed.
The Galway man was to the fore again when he won a free kick 30 yards out and it was to prove the pivotal moment in the game when Wolverhampton Wanderers midfielder Ronan addressed the ball.
Ronan struck his effort well but was grateful for a huge slice of fortune as the ball took a wicked deflection off Ahmed Habib in the wall and wrongfooted the blameless goalkeeper.
Ireland should have doubled their lead within three minutes as Reading winger Josh Barrett – one of three new faces in the starting line-up, was cut down in the area.
Idah scored twice from the spot in the 4-1 win over China on the opening day but captain Molumby took responsibility from 12 yards, but saw his effort saved by Ahmed.
Molumby’s penalty was well-struck but a nice height for the keeper, and Barrett was caught in two minds from the rebound and flashed the loose ball across the face of goal.
Ireland continued to press and another seamless passage of play saw Ronan run from deep and tee up Connolly, but the striker’s left-footed shot just cleared the crossbar.
If Barrett was wasteful in the aftermath of the penalty, he did everything right but put the ball in the net when set up by Ronan moments later.
The Merseyside native did brilliantly to wriggle free and set up Barrett coming in off the left, but his goalbound curler was magnificently turned away by the impressive Ahmed.
UCD’s Liam Scales went close with headers either side of half time as Ireland looked to press home their advantage but, gradually, Bahrain began to build in confidence.
Marhoon’s quick thinking to shoot from the halfway line kept Kelleher honest, but the backtracking goalkeeper was able to pick his lofted effort out of the sky.
Ronan had the ball in the net for a second time when he outfoxed Ahmed on the endline and turned home from an acute angle, but the ball was questionably adjudged to have gone dead.
Bahrain took over from that point and Saleh was aggrieved to see Kelleher deny his effort, while right-back Jasim Alsalama forced a fine block from Darragh Leahy.
Kelleher took a risk in catching Marhoon’s floated free kick while standing behind the line and, though Bahrain pressed, they lacked the quality to truly test the Liverpool keeper.
Ireland finished on the front foot and Connolly forced a good stop from Ahmed in injury time before substitute Jack Taylor, on his debut, shot straight at the Manama stopper.
Kenny’s side will face Brazil, who won all three of their group games, in the quarter-finals after Mexico could only match the 1-0 scoreline against China in the late game.
Bahrain: Mohamed Ahmed; Jasim Alsalama, Alkhayyat Abbas, Ahmed Mubarak, Ahmed Habib; Abbas Alasfoor (Mohsen Alawi 79), Mohamed Al Hardan, Adnan Alshirah (Mohammed Alshamsi 68); Ahmed Alsherooqi (Ahmadi Mohamed 46), Mohamed Marhoon, Sanad Saleh.
Subs not used: Yusuf Habib (gk), Abdulaziz Alkandari (gk), Hashim Isa, Jasim Abdulla, Shubbar Ameen, Madan Jaafar, Sabba Jameel, Salem Hasan.
Booked: Alkhayyat Abbas (36), Mohamed Marhoon (84), Jasim Alsalama (90+1).
Republic of Ireland: Caoimhin Kelleher; Lee O’Connor, Dara O’Shea, Liam Scales, Darragh Leahy; Jayson Molumby, Connor Ronan (Jack Taylor 79), Jason Knight (Conor Coventry 46); Zack Elbouzedi (Adam Idah 28), Josh Barrett (Simon Power 68), Aaron Connolly.
Subs not used: Conor Kearns (gk), Conor Masterson, Canice Carroll, Tyreke Wilson, Jamie Lennon, Stephen Mallon, Aaron Drinan.
Referee: Alex Johnson.
Extratime.ie Player of the Match: Connor Ronan (Republic of Ireland).