Ireland’s senior women’s team head into a crucial juncture of World Cup qualification this week as they cross the halfway point of the group.
Colin Bell’s side put their unbeaten record on the line as they take on both the bottom side and top side in Group 3 – facing Slovakia on Friday and the Netherlands next Tuesday.
Significantly for the Girls in Green, both matches are in Tallaght. Indeed, four of their remaining five games in the group are at home, meaning that home comforts could see them on the road to next year’s World Cup.
It’s fitting, actually, that they face Slovakia this week, as it was this time last year, ahead of a friendly against Friday’s opposition, that the Ireland team held their now-famous press conference to draw attention on the shoddy conditions in which they were forced to operate in, such as having to get changed in airport bathrooms.
Fast forward twelve months and, on the pitch at least (as mediation continues off it), the team are in extremely high spirits. 2-0 away victories against Northern Ireland and Slovakia were followed up with a highly impressive scoreless draw against reigning European champions Netherlands, a result that was earned through a dogged, determined defensive display by the away side.
As is the case with most Ireland teams, Bell’s side have been faring well against the odds. Although they were unlucky to come up against a rampant Germany outfit in the 2015 qualifiers, they were still not expected to make a huge splash this time around (or, at least, their status of being placed in the group of third seeds by the skin of their teeth.
Upsetting the odds is something of an Irish trait, though, and leading the way in the regard is the side’s 22-year-old captain Katie McCabe, Arsenal forward and younger sister of Bray Wanderers winger Gary McCabe.
At 22, she’s one of the youngest captains in International football ?
— Three Ireland (@ThreeIreland) April 4, 2018
McCabe has stepped up to fill he void left by Emma Byrne after the latter’s retirement last year. Byrne had a huge influence over Irish women’s football for over two decades – she earned well over a century of caps, and led the charge in last year’s extraordinary protest. Taking the armband from the legendary goalkeeper was never going to be an easy task, but it’s one that McCabe has risen to.
Ireland are looking to qualify for a major tournament for the first time, and although spirits are high right now, the task ahead of them will still be an enormous one. Slovakia, for all of their strengths, are bottom of the table with four defeats from four. Morale is shot, their ideas aren’t clicking and, with the greatest of respect to them, they should be there for the taking.
Netherlands, though, will be out for revenge. That 0-0 stalemate in November will have frustrated them massively, and they will be determined to put that right in Tallaght. Bell recently suggested that the Dutch were, theoretically anyway, “light years ahead of Ireland” in terms of their development
And that’s before we even get to Norway. They suffered a 1-0 defeat to the Netherlands in stoppage time in their clash in Gronigen last October, but they will still consider that to be a minor setback. Somewhat fortunately for Ireland, Norway are only playing in one of two of this week’s matchdays so there is the chance to put some real daylight between themselves and the group’s top seeds.
If Ireland do come way with these next two matches with positive results, the double-header with Norway in June will go a long way to determining if Ireland can finally reach the promised land and take their place at the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France.
For now, though, they can’t look beyond Slovakia and the Netherlands. Two very different challenges, but with the same end goal.
Join us in Tallaght to create a big atmosphere for Colin Bell’s unbeaten side! ?
— eir Sport (@eirSport) April 3, 2018