No margin for error but Ireland confident of progress

[Ireland’s World Cup efforts reach crunch time this afternoon as they take on China in India with a win set to push them to the brink of the knockout phases.

Their opening 2-1 loss last Friday against world number one side Australia was never likely to be a defining moment for their chances.

Facing the lowest ranked side in their group, who the Green Machine have beaten in their four meetings this last decade, this is a must-win.

What the Australia game did bring was plenty of confidence, with Ireland remaining in the mix until the final stages.

For striker Alan Sothern, it has left the squad in a good place.

He said: “We are playing some really good hockey; outcomes in the final third will be a huge focus for us and we are aware of areas we can hurt them if we play smart and try to connect in and around the D.”

China are the biggest enigma in Bhubaneswar. The entire side hail from Inner Mongolia with a couple never having played outside the province as their national federation decided to withdraw from the Asian Games in September in Jakarta.

Experience is a fraction of a well-heeled Irish side with only one player — Daragh Walsh with less than 50 caps to their name. China have just three players past the half-century.

The no-show in Indonesia means there is precious little video analysis to be done. Indeed, their 2-2 draw with England last Friday was the first useful footage available.

“We are relying a lot on what we saw in game one,” Sothern said. “Like any Asian team, they attack with speed on the counter and have great skill in one-v-one situations. We need to be wary of that and set up a strong defensive base in the middle of the pitch.”

Indeed, they sat incredibly deep and picked off England with two goals from two shots. Should Ireland get an early start, though, they could make hay as they did in 2015 at the Olympic qualifiers in Antwerp.

Sothern, the former Pembroke man, almost wrote himself into hockey’s history books in that tie.

He scored twice in a 19-second spell in the second quarter with a pair of spectacular early strikes before having a penalty stroke chance. Had he converted it, the hat-trick would have come in 85 seconds but he uncharacteristically miscued the chance.

Nonetheless, he did not dwell on it and tapped home the fourth that day and it remains a treasured memory.

“The scoreline ended up resounding but there was not much between us until we got our first goal.

“Scoring two in a minute changed the whole game. It was a real sucker punch for them and you could sense their heads went down from that point.

“It allowed us to play with more freedom as they chased us. As a goalscorer, you want to get on the scoresheet so to get two in one minute in a game of such importance, it brings back good memories.”

In terms of creating more memories, Sothern says there is no better stage for Ireland to try and grasp their first win at a World Cup since February 1978.

“Playing hockey in India is always special and it’s great to experience a tournament like the World Cup in front of the Indian fans.

“The noise in the stadium in game one was incredible, it felt louder than all but our Argentina game at the Olympics and we are all looking forward to getting out there again.”

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