The Republic of Ireland’s women team are immune to distractions as they prepare for today’s crucial European 2021 Qualifier away to Group I minnows, Montenegro, this afternoon.
The squad has trekked to the Balkans in the very week Europe is on high alert due to the coronavirus outbreak but all involved insist it is business as usual as they bid to top the Group and move one step closer to their ambition of reaching a first major tournament.
Vera Pauw’s side has every reason to block out distractions in the scenic coastal village of Petrovac.
Swatting aside the nation positioned 94 in the FIFA rankings tomorrow will place them on the cusp of earning a play-off chance of participating in next year’s European Championships in England.
The only asterisk to derailing that scenario is Ukraine winning all of their remaining five qualifiers, including the visit of Ireland to Lviv on June 5.
Alternatively, a point in either of the Republic’s games against Germany, however unlikely, would render a Ukrainian closing streak as meaningless.
Ireland followed up wins over Ukraine and Montenegro (both at home) and a draw away to Greece with a 1-0 victory over the latter on Thursday.
That leaves a straight shoot-out between Ukraine and Ireland for the runners-up spot, one that could guarantee a direct ticket to the finals if sufficient points are accumulated.
“Our target from this double-header of games was six points and we’ve got the quality to beat Montenegro,” said Ireland striker Amber Barrett said of today’s clash.
We can look at the group table after the match.
It was commendable that Ireland manager, Vera Pauw, didn’t resort to the familiar trend of hyping up limited opposition.
Montenegro lost all of their 11 qualifiers since first entering the Euros for the 2015 qualifying campaign.
Despite conceding an average of six goals in each of those defeats, the minnows made Ireland work hard for a 2-0 victory at Tallaght last September. Pauw was in the stand that night, poised to take over from caretaker boss Tom O’Connor the following morning and was able to make her own assessment.
“Montenegro are the weakest team in the group and have struggled to get out of their own half in the campaign,” she explained. “They played with nine players in defence and midfield, with the other operating as a half attacker. We’ll have to play against the wall.
Breaking that down requires variety and, although we’ve only had a few days to work with the squad, we’ve been working on that plan.”
Barrett, who scored in the last away game in Greece, is likely to start as the main striker in place of Rianna Jarrett. The recent Brighton and Hove Albion recruit is having her game-time managed due to her injury record and is unlikely to start for the second time in six days.
When Jarrett couldn’t start against Athens last November, Barrett stepped in and promptly scored her second international goal against Greece.
Since then, she’s managed to put a string of starts together in the Bundesliga for the newly-promoted side.
“I’m feeling fit and ready to play. I had to wait a while to get into the Koln team but am feeling the benefits of playing in such a high-intensity league,” said the Donegal native. “If Vera gives me my chance, it’s up to me to take that,” she said.
Heather Payne’s absence with a hamstring strain creates another vacancy which Stephanie Roche and Clare Shine will be aiming to fill. Cork native Shine impressed late on at Tallaght and could be included as part of an attacking game-plan.
IRELAND (probable): M Hourihan (SC Braga); H Scott (Birmingham City), L Quinn (Arsenal), D Caldwell (SC Sand), A O’Gorman (Peamount United); N Fahey (Liverpool), D O’Sullivan (North Carolina Courage); C Shine (Glasgow City), R Littlejohn (West Ham United), K McCabe (Arsenal); A Barrett (FC Koln).