Less than half an hour had elapsed since referee Simona Ghisletta blew the full-time whistle on the Republic of Ireland’s 2-1 win over Slovakia when the focus had clearly shifted to the next challenge.
Substitute Amber Barrett’s goal three minutes from time propelled Colin Bell’s side to a vital three points in the race for qualification for the Women’s 2019 World Cup. Ten points from four games, the first three away home, leaves Ireland joint-top of Group 3 with the Netherlands, who provide the opposition on Tuesday.
The European champions, ranked seventh in the world, will be determined to put daylight between themselves and the women in green, especially after the 0-0 last November which raised eyebrows. Bell’s side showed defensive resilience as the Dutch failed to breakdown their stubborn opponents despite dominating proceedings in front of 12,000 supporters at Nijmegen.
Speaking after the nervy win over Slovakia, Bell admitted that the visitors will be out for revenge.
"They were really disappointed with that result and they are coming here not to beat us, but to really thrash us," he said.
Comfortable in possession if a little short in attacking intent in the opening 45 minutes, Bell’s side could have been forgiven for having one eye on the second-half of their double header against a Slovakian side yet to pick up a point.
Match-winner Barrett admitted as much afterwards, and the Slovaks finished with more attempts and more shots on target than Ireland.
Bell was particularly unimpressed by Ireland's first-half showing with a strong breeze, and the press of his forward trio in closing the opposition down.
Shortly after Ireland’s third win of the campaign on Friday evening, around 100 miles up the road, the Dutch put seven past Northern Ireland to warm up nicely for their second Irish assignment.
There will be no shortage of threats in orange, but Shanice van de Sanden will again carry a great deal of responsibility up front. The 25-year-old, who left Liverpool after just one season last year, was nullified in the reverse fixture after an exemplary performance by Harriet Scott.
Injury has ruled Scott out of the double-header – Karen Duggan deputised against the Slovaks and duly picked up the player of the match award – and Bell knows this changes the dynamic in his tactical approach.
"She marked out van de Sanden on the night and it was a brilliant performance from her. We have got to find answers now and regroup."
The answers may need to come from further up the field.
Goalkeeper Hourihan will be looking to put behind her lapse in the second half that gifted an unlikely Slovakian equaliser, though it should be noted it was the first goal conceded in the group.
The defence has a settled look to it, with Louise Quinn and Diane Caldwell a solid centre-half pairing, but against a formidable side such as the Netherlands – 22 places above Ireland in the latest world rankings – maintaining possession will be key in achieving a positive result.
The return of Megan Connolly, whose academic commitments ruled her out of the first three games, was a huge boon, while greater responsibility falls on Denise O’Sullivan (above) both defensively and in terms of getting Ireland on the front foot. The North Carolina Courage midfielder gave a typically industrious performance on Friday and rarely coughs up possession cheaply.
Bell opted for a front three against Slovakia with Leanne Kiernan leading the line, flanked by Katie McCabe and Ruesha Littlejohn, who was rewarded for her performances in training, but saw her replacement Barrett claim the match-winner. A tactical alteration and/or a change in personnel could be on the cards.
Republic of Ireland defender Louise Quinn looks ahead to the crucial World Cup qualifier with European champions Netherlands. pic.twitter.com/sj20g8tetT— Soccer Republic (@SoccRepublic) April 9, 2018
The Ireland manager revealed he asked for more from Kiernan at the interval and it seemed to have an immediate effect as she ran at the Slovakian defence and showed real composure with her goal. McCabe too was a lively presence, and while they probably won’t see as much of the ball against the Dutch, what they do with it could have a huge bearing on not only the game, but the possible road to France.
The winners of the seven groups qualify automatically, with the four best runners-up moving into the play-offs.
With only the results of the second-placed teams against the first, third and fourth-placed teams in the group taken into account – Ireland’s wins against Slovakia are therefore not included – Ireland are currently in fifth place of the seven sides currently in second place in the seven groups, behind the Ukraine on goal difference. Even a draw could have a significant impact on their fate.
The players are bullish about their chances. Captain McCabe said six points was the aim ahead of the home ties and nothing else was on the radar, while the away draw will have instilled greater confidence that the team are moving in the right direction.
The Netherlands however will be a stern test of their development. A share of the spoils would be a massive result, even if the players won’t publicly admit as much.
For that to happen, a clear improvement is required, but they have proved on a number of occasions already, that when they are put to the pin of their collars, they have had the answers.
Ninety minutes of intrigue awaits at the Tallaght Stadium.
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