A late victory over Slovakia last night keeps Ireland’s women firmly in the hunt to challenge European champions the Netherlands for a place at next year’s World Cup.
Substitute Amber Barrett rescued the ambitions of Colin Bell’s side of becoming the first Ireland team to reach a major tournament when she blasted home the crucial striker with four minutes remaining at Tallaght Stadium.
Facing the prospect of dropping two precious points to the group’s basement nation after Ireland goalkeeper Marie Hourihan’s own-goal gifted Slovakia an equaliser 19 minutes from end, Bell threw Barrett on five minutes later to salvage the day.
Player of the Match Karen Duggan provided the assist by unhinging the defence with a long punt and the 21-year-old native did the rest by brushing off her marker and smashing her shot from 10 yards into the corner despite goalkeeper Maria Korenclova getting a hand to the effort.
Victory means Ireland remain level with the Dutch – who hammered Northern Ireland in front of 35,000 fans in Eindhoven last night – at the top of Group Three.
Tuesday night back at Tallaght sees the pair clash for outright leadership of the group and Bell admits the Dutch will want to “thrash” the Girls in Green. The Orange machine were far from impressed with Ireland’s defensive tactics in halting their surge in a goalless draw in the reverse fixture last November.
Bell knows his side will have to improve for the Dutch rematch, having struggled for fluency against the Slovaks on a windswept afternoon in Dublin 24.
Slovakia’s gameplan of frustrating the Irish worked a treat in the first half as the Girls in Green were limited to half-chances for captain Katie McCabe and Kiernan.
The stalemate persisted until the 69th minute when Diane Caldwell’s pass from her own half allowed Kiernan nip ahead of Patricia Fischerova and nod the ball towards goal. The Cavan teenager showed a cool head to burst clear and beat Korenclova inside her near post.
From that joy in front of 3,500 fans soon came the pinch of conceding just four minutes later. All seemed to be under control when Jana Vojtekova lofted a cross in from the left but Ireland goalkeeper Marie Hourihan inexplicably allowed the ball deflect off her shin and drop into the net. It was an unfortunate way to concede her first goal in four matches of the campaign.
That provoked Bell into action by springing Barrett from the bench, with Kiernan deployed to the wing, and the tactic gained traction against the suspect visiting defence.
They had looked all at sea when McCabe released Kiernan through the centre but the striker was unable to keep her effort down as it rose over the crossbar.
Against a side that had conceded 14 goals in their four previous qualifiers, Ireland were always likely to muster another chance and it duly fell to Barrett.
“Colin told me to get on the end of something and I just went for power when Karen played the ball over the top,” admitted the Peamount United forward.
Her manager was far from impressed with Barrett picking up a yellow card for taking her shirt off amid the celebrations but conceded her intervention prevented Ireland suffered a bump along the road to France.
“Amber is a talented player who still plays her football in Ireland,” noted Bell afterwards.
“Her introduction gave us something different up front and she delivered when it mattered.
“We didn’t get any shots on goal in the first half and played more intelligently as the game progressed.
“Although the equaliser caused some shock amongst the players, they showed plenty of character to grab the winner.”
M Hourihan; S Perry-Campbell, L Quinn, D Caldwell, K Duggan; N Fahey, M Connolly; R Littlejohn (A Barrett 78), D O’Sullivan, K McCabe; L Kiernan.
M Korenclova; L Suskova, P Fischerova, D Bartovicova, J Vojtekova; P Hmirova, A Biroova, M Mikolajova (L Harsanyova 89), V Susolova, M Surnovska (K Fabova 83); D Skorvankova.
Simona Ghisletta (SUI) Attendance: 3521.
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