Two years ago the Republic of Ireland went to Greece for the third game of their 2021 European Championship qualification campaign.

A month on from a thrilling 3-2 win against the group's second seeds Ukraine - Vera Pauw’s first match at the helm - the afternoon clash in Athens was viewed as awkward but winnable.

The Greeks had to be put to the sword for Ireland to keep the pressure on Ukraine, with whom they were battling for the runner-up spot behind group powerhouses Germany.

Amber Barrett volleyed the visitors ahead 12 minutes in, Ireland spurned a few chances to kill it off, and then… panic set it in. As the second half unfolded, Ireland creaked. Deeper and deeper they retreated until the sucker punch arrived in the 92nd minute when Anastasia Spyridonidou knocked home the leveller.

In the aftermath Pauw didn’t pull any punches. This was two points dropped. Ireland had been hit by a number of injuries before the game but the Dutch coach was still irritated that "a bunch of street fighters made it so difficult for us that we couldn’t get our play".

Pauw said her players needed "to learn how to see the game away... the thing is they moved players up and they were just so sharp in tackles and they were streetwise. We have to learn from that because we’ve given it away ourselves".

On Tuesday evening in Helsinki, Pauw would have been entitled to believe she’d witnessed tangible evidence of crucial improvement. Twenty-four months after being popped by "a bunch of street fighters", she was hailing the efforts of her own "bunch of tigers".

Finland are a better side than Greece. They’ve qualified for next summer’s Euros and are ranked 25th in the world, eight places above Ireland. They had 6,000 fans in Helsinki’s Olympic Stadium as part of celebrations marking 50 years of women's football in the country and had won their first two qualifiers against Georgia and Slovakia.

The Finns are a team with their tails up and it’s not inconceivable that they could take something off Sweden, who they've yet to play.

So Tuesday’s win for Ireland was significant.

Four days after giving the Swedes a real game in Tallaght, they travelled to a difficult venue and managed to emulate those energy levels as they executed a smart and disciplined game plan. When the home team equalised early in the second half, it was Ireland who reacted more vigorously to retake the lead. And when the chips were down in a nerve-shredding last ten minutes, the Girls in Green found a way to see the game out.

Only five of the players who played in Greece started on Tuesday and the upgrade in experience and quality was evident. Savannah McCarthy [above], Lucy Quinn, Aine O'Gorman, Megan Connolly and the tireless Heather Payne were all excellent in Helsinki and representative of a stronger, fitter looking Ireland.

It's early days in the campaign but Pauw's strategy of playing high-ranking teams in friendlies this year is starting to look shrewd.

In the eight months before the Sweden game Ireland faced Denmark, Belgium and Iceland [twice]. Four matches against sides inside the world’s top 20; four defeats. But the lessons learned and the physicality required to compete in those clashes was precious. That much was evident when Ireland finally did get their win against a top side, the 3-2 victory over Australia in September which was an important psychological boost.

Ireland's disastrous 1-0 loss to Ukraine in the penultimate game of their Euros qualification campaign was seen as the hammer blow to their hopes as it left them needing to beat the Germans to make the play-offs, which they failed to do. Everything went wrong that night in Kyiv: a freak own goal by O'Gorman, a missed McCabe penalty, an overwhelming sense that fate had turned against them.

But the damage done in Athens left scars Ireland couldn't heal. It meant they'd less wriggle room, thus the slip-up in Ukraine proved fatal. It's something the squad is surely hyper aware of this time around, with Georgia and Slovakia to come at home in November.

Ireland came away from Finland with a big win

Anything less than a six-point return from those games would be a major blow because it's highly unlikely Sweden or Finland will waver against those teams.

After next month's double-header, Ireland travel to Sweden in April, go to Georgia in June, welcome the Finns to Dublin in September and finish with an away clash with Slovakia. There's a long way to go but there's signs this squad has learned how to dig out big results.

When Finland really turned the screw on Tuesday, Irish nous shone through: Brosnan was generally excellent on crosses; McCarthy and Quinn prevented the back line from dropping too deep; the excellent Payne was a priceless pressure reliever, running the channels and often making something out of 50-50 punts forward.

You could see it too in the way Ireland killed time when they were in the lead, slowing things down to draw the sting from the desperate Finns. On top of that McCabe and O'Sullivan both continue to get better and better, with the former providing a threat on the break even though she played deeper than had been expected.

After the narrow loss to Sweden, McCabe was annoyed. Ireland had stood up to arguably the best team in Europe and only lost the game thanks to a very unlucky deflection off Louise Quinn just before half-time, but McCabe had no interest in taking a moral victory. "It was an unfortunate own goal but they are the fine margins at this level," she said. "We need to eliminate them."

There's a steely determination in this team to be the ones that qualify for a first ever major tournament.

They passed a big test in Helsinki. With a few more to come over the next nine months, Pauw's tigers will get every opportunity to prove beyond all doubt that they have finally evolved the killer instinct required to go to the next level.

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