Clarke strikes as draw sends Irish top

IRELAND’S upward mobility continued apace as they drew 1-1 with Spain to top their group at the women’s Champions Challenge I at UCD last night.

Gene Muller has seen his side show encouraging early signs from the controversial centralisation of players implemented last October, with Ireland turning on the style to beat India 2-1 before grinding out victory by the same scoreline against Azerbaijan 24 hours later, their first wins against higher-ranked sides since 2009.

And they got another good result against the world number 10 Spain, ensuring they finished the group stages with seven points — more than any of the other seven nations, and a rousing statistic for a side ranked second lowest of the sides ahead of the tournament.

There are mitigating factors, however; the tournament structure, bemoaned by Muller in the build-up last week, sees all eight sides progress to a quarter-final irrespective of their group stage performances, meaning the top sides could feasibly have been keeping their powder dry until the knockout stages.

Nonetheless, Ireland will approach tomorrow’s quarter-final tie against the USA — Group A’s basement side — with confidence after avoiding defeat against a Spanish outfit that hosed them 4-1 at the 2009 European championships.

On this evidence, Ireland are a side on the way up while Spain are heading in the opposite direction. Coach Muller felt brave enough to experiment defensively, resting Cliodhna Sargent and only sporadically using Sinead McCarthy, with Michelle Harvey and the impressive Shirley McCay forming a makeshift centre-back pairing.

The hosts were the better side but neither could get a shot away in anger during a cagey opening half characterised by slack Irish outlet balls, with Spain telegraphing too many of the hosts’ passes.

Ireland came alive in the second period but Harvey’s three short corner efforts were repelled. Spain broke away with pace from the last of those in the 50th minute, Olalla Pineiro eventually squaring for Barbara Malda to rifle home past a stranded Pamela Smithwick.

But Ireland were level soon after, vice-captain Emma Clarke’s persistence paying off as she battled past three Spaniards before bashing home from six yards.

Ireland had to survive a few nervy defensive moments — notably when Maialen Garcia ballooned a volley over the bar when she opted for brute force instead of accuracy — but also threatened themselves to the end, Nicci Daly touching one crash ball into the side netting while Julia O’Halloran saw a wicked reverse-stick effort blocked.

Meanwhile, Belfield witnessed a world record yesterday as South Africa’s Pietee Coetzee notched a 12-minute hat-trick to become the sport’s record international goalscorer.

Coetzee now has 221 international goals following her side’s 5-5 draw with the USA, which saw them top their pool on goal difference to go into tomorrow’s quarter-finals as top seeds alongside Ireland.

South Africa will now take on Spain, with India meeting Japan and Azerbaijan locking horns with the Scots.

IRELAND: P Smithwick, M Harvey, E Smyth, E Clarke, A Speers, J O’Halloran, S McCarthy, N Symmons, A O’Flynn, L Colvin, N Daly

Subs: S McCay, J McDonnell, L Jacob, A Connery, C Watkins.

SPAIN: I Barguno, J Menendez, R Ybarra, B Bonastre, M Prat, S Munoz, B Perez, B Malda, P Sanchez, M Comerma, G Oliva

Subs: M Lopez, A Puig, M Garcia, A Flores, O Pineiro.

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