Irish complete group stage unbeaten to set up USA date; India smash Azerbaijan

FIH Champion’s Challenge I, Group B
Ireland 1 (Emma Clarke) Spain 1 (Barbara Malda)
Emma Clarke helped grab a point for Ireland as the side completed their group stages unbeaten, tying with the world number 10 side Spain, the Leicester midfielder smashing home from close range.

It capped a fine night for Clarke who propelled the side forward in the second half after the side had fallen behind against the run of play to Barbara Malda’s simple finish.

But Gene Muller’s charges showed a steady resolve and refound some of the rhythm that did for India last Saturday and Ireland looked the more likely to take the tie in the final reckoning.

India’s early win over Azerbaijan meant that Ireland were assured of top spot in the group, making the tie largely academic.

It allowed Muller some room to shuffle his deck, resting Cliodhna Sargent and also bringing in Pamela Smithwick between the posts. Sinead McCarthy, one of Ireland’s other top performers, was also swapped out more regularly with Shirley McCay sampled at the back.

But Spain have been regarded as a bogey side for the girls in green and, as European number fours, are one of the possible roadblocks to Ireland’s chances of breaking into the Olympic places at next August’s Europeans.

Pride and moral victories could be sought, especially in the wake of a tough 3-0 defeat back in 2009 in the Europeans. And so Muller said that while the first half was not great, there was plenty in the second half to draw from.

“We didn’t have a lot of rhythm in the first half and we needed to change a lot of things but we owned the second half so I was happy how it ended. We had more of the chances and I was happy we turned the ball over a lot but we just couldn’t find a way to win the game.

“We’ve certainly closed the gap with Spain and I felt today we were better than them. We got seven out of nine points out of the pool so it was mission accomplished there but there is certainly enough to work on for the quarter-final.”

For those lessons, read the outletting from the back as the first half saw numerous passes out of defence go astray as Spain were in the box seat. Not that they made massive use of it as Barbara Malda’s miscued reverse was the sole chance of note in a turgid 35 minutes.

The second period was much better. Both sides were pinged for technical offences – not retreating and pushing the ball away after the whistle – for the first corners of the match around the 45 minute mark.

Just as Ireland were gaining the upper hand, their experimental backline was sprung with Oli Pineiro all alone on the top right of the circle. She calmly squared for Malda who evaded the covering defence to push home.

But the lead was short-lived as Clarke bundled her way through three tackles, staying low to the ground to eventually find space and smash past Isabel Barguno from all of six yards.

And the midfielder paid tribute to umpire Marlieze de Klerk – standing in her 201st international – for allowing her the chance.

“I think it was a quality piece of umpiring because she could have blown a couple of times for a short corner. It was just grit and determination at that stage and I was lucky enough to finish it off. I thought we really had to go for it. 1-0 down, why not drive on?”

Tempo raised, Ireland pushed on with Julia O’Halloran clipping the backboard while Chloe Watkins was showing some neat skills around the circle.

Spain almost cashed in on the stretched Irish defence due to numbers committed further forward, Rocio Ybarra reversing over while Maialen Garcia fluffed a volley, the ball striking the nose of her stick and going into orbit and over the fence.

Two good Irish attacks in the final minute showed intent but came to nought but the highest points total of any side was secured and positive s could be drawn.

USA are up next on Thursday in the quarter-final, the IHA and the hockey public probably delighted to secure the fourth tie of the day to ensure another bumper crowd.

To that end, the Strathearn and Victorian schools provided much of the acoustics to another good crowd. As for the Americans, Muller said it may not be an ideal draw but says his side could only control their own path.

“It’s a difficult prospect. They were unlucky not to win today and also against Japan. It is the opponent that I wanted to avoid the most. But we can only win our pool, I can’t determine what happens on the other side. It will be a very tough match but we’ll be up for it.”

In the other quarter-finals, South Africa play Spain (10am, Belfield), Japan face India (12.30pm) and Scotland play Azerbaijan (3pm).

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

India 6 (Saba Anjum 3, Rani Rampal, Deepika Thakur, Jasjeet Kaur Handa) Azerbaijan 1 (Khatira Aliyeva)
Saba Anjum’s first half hat-trick inspired her Indian side to a comfortable victory over Azerbaijan, a result which meant Ireland top Group B and will play at 5.30pm in Thursday’s quarter-final against USA.

This was scarcely a contest, India racing into a 5-0 lead by the 33rd minute. They took the foot off the gas somewhat in the second half but had too big a lead already for it to matter.

Rani Rampal had already served notice of India’s attacking intent before Anjum cracked home from the top of the circle in the fourth minute to break the deadlock.

Deepika Thakur’s cracked penalty corner took a deflection into the roof of the net for 3-0 before Rampal applied a simple finish to a complex but graceful move which took neat deflections on route across goal. Anjum slid onto a switched corner move for the fifth of the half and the completion of her hat-trick.

Into the second period, Azerbaijan got more of a grip. They scored from their fourth penalty corner, Khatira Aliyeva adding to her tournament tally with a straight strike but Jasjeet Kaur Handa’s delightful sixth stopped any comeback dead in its tracks.

Final Group B standings: 1. Ireland 7pts (+2) 2. India 4pts (+4) 3. Azerbaijan 3pts (-5) 4. Spain 2pts (-1)

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