World Cup qualifier
Finland v Republic of Ireland
Olympic stadium, Helsinki, 4.15pm – Live RTÉ 2
If this is truly a results business then the Republic of Ireland, looking sharp in Sky branded tracksuits and pocketing the same appearance fee as male counterparts, need to deliver in Helsinki.
Another seminal match then, late of a Tuesday afternoon, where Katie McCabe’s team must prove to their loyal and patient public that they possess the wherewithal to translate victory over Australia last month and pushing Sweden yet losing 1-nil, into victory over opponents of a similar standard.
Winning far, far away from Tallaght is how qualification for a major tournament gets done. They enter this Olympic stadium, dripping in historic sporting feats from Zátopek to Litmanen, seeking to spoil a celebration of women’s soccer in Finland.
Some 6,000 supporters are due to populate the impressive wooden-seated arena, surrounded by famous red asphalt, as the “Boreal Owls” mark 50 years as a female football nation. A hundred schoolgirl teams will be present to witness goalkeeper Tinja-Riikka Korpela receive a century of caps.
Ireland might just inhale all these positive vibes and then trash the Finnish team.
Louise Quinn avoided such a dramatic perspective. “For us it is a really important game, but it is not going to be what makes or breaks the campaign for us. But for us it is about making sure that we put in that performance and stay defensively sound, as well.
“Keep them out and then we know our capabilities, what we showed against Australia, that we are capable of getting forward and putting chances away.”
The travelling Irish media, far from satisfied with the Birmingham centre- half’s calming, professional attitude, put the same high-stakes scenario to Ireland manager Vera Pauw. “It could be pivotal,” Pauw half agreed. “We will only know that afterwards.”
The Dutch coach tends to answer direct question in this manner.
“We are realistic,” Pauw continued, while noting that eight Fifa places separate the countries.
“Finland is ranked higher than us. They are not as strong as Sweden on paper but they are a very strong team. They have qualified for the Euros so we need to see what we can do. We will be under high pressure again, so from there we need to see what we can do against that.”
Internal, never mind external, pressure on this squad is very real because they failed to qualify for the Euros and because we are witnessing the prime years of the best players to ever pull on the green shirt. Denise O’Sullivan, who has recovered from a Swedish wallop, is 27. McCabe, so bullish yet composed last week, is 26. Quinn is 31.
Brief interactions with the squad make it clear that they desire the next great leap more than anyone else. But their time to play at a major tournament is now. The Euros was a real chance. To reach the 2023 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand demands results beyond the capabilities of past Irish sides.
Victory is not beyond them but tactically Pauw will be tested to the limit by Anna Signeul, who succeeded her as Scotland manager.
“Yeah we know each other very well,” said Signeul. “I’ve known her since she was a player in Holland…and I actually have Vera to thank for the [Scottish] job because I think she recommended me.”
Resorting to catapulting Quinn up front to steal a late goal cannot be the only Plan B. There has to be more than that old chestnut. Holding Leanne Kiernan in reserve might be a luxury Ireland cannot afford. Her pace down the right wing almost proved lethal against Sweden.
Tactically Ireland have changed up. Much like Stephen Kenny’s men, they appear to have adopted Chelsea’s 4-5-1 without the ball and 4-3-3 in possession.
It worked well last week but Megan Connolly could do with lightening the mighty load O’Sullivan carries, while McCabe proved that using her in a defensive role is bordering on the criminal. Also, Lucy Quinn’s support of Heather Payne’s selfless running has to create more shots on goal.
“I think we’ve been extremely aggressive in our approach against Australia and Sweden,” said Pauw to suggestions that more is needed in attack.
“What I am very proud of is we only had three fouls, and only one was an actual foul, in the whole game against a team that is ranked second in the world, even though we were pressing them constantly, in our deep block, that is true, but we started off against Ukraine with 24 fouls. That in itself is a growth. We need that tomorrow too.”
True growth, at this stage, is a result, and the players know this better than anyone else.
FINLAND (possible): TR Korpela; T Hyyrynen, A Westerlund, N Kuikka, E Koivisto; A Engman, E Alanen, E Summanen, R Öling; S Franssi, L Sällström.
IRELAND (possible): Brosnan; Finn, Fahey, Louise Quinn, McCarthy, O’Gorman; Lucy Quinn, Connolly, O’Sullivan, McCabe; Payne.
Referee: Alexandra Collin (France).