Women’s EuroHockey Nations Championships, Pool C
Ireland 3 (M Harvey, E Clarke, N Symmons) Azerbaijan 1 (Y-S Kim)
Ireland gave their chances of beating European championship relegation a huge shot in the arm with a comprehensive defeat over Azerbaijan in Monchengladbach this afternoon.
It was the third time Ireland had beaten the Azeris this summer but by far the most important. With Belgium beating Italy 2-0 earlier in the day, anything other than a win would have seen Gene Muller’s side drop to the ‘B division’ for the first time.
But goals from Michelle Harvey, Emma Clarke and Nikki Symmons blew away the team’s inhibitions and lift the side off the bottom rung of the relegation pool with plenty of momentum to take into Saturday’s tie with Italy.
Their position could have been yet stronger had they held out a last minute penalty corner, Yoon Seon Kim grabbing a rebound.
It may yet be a pivotal goal as it pushed Azerbaijan one clear of Ireland in the goal difference rankings and means the greens need to outdo the eastern European side’s result on the final day of competition.
Following three harrowing defeats, it was a welcome relief for Muller’s side. They started in fighting fashion, winning three penalty corners inside opening phases with Emma Smyth, on her 50th cap, providing a creative spark absent from the side to date.
Lisa Jacob and Nikki Symmons combined to fluff a golden chance in the tenth minute as the first semblance of nerves were growing in the stands when the side eventually got their deserved breakthough.
Smyth won a fifth penalty corner of a dominant half and Harvey –with a late adjustment to the intended pattern – saw her shot loop over the logged Saadat Nuriyeva in the 32nd minute.
Clarke got an insurance goal with 12 minutes to go, following up her own incisive pass as Jacob’s shot rebounded her way.
And it looked like Ireland were out of the relegation zone when Symmons exchanged delightful passes with Julia O’Halloran and skipper Alex Speers before diving onto her reverse and shooting home.
Speaking afterwards, Muller was relieved his side was still alive in the competition: “In the last two European campaigns since I’ve been involved, it’s always been backs to the wall. It doesn’t become any easier and I have found this one by far the most demanding. We conceded a goal against Germany [in their first game] within 90 seconds and it’s been backs to the wall since that moment. The team were unbelievable and it requires great resilience to do that.”
Ireland’s men are back in action today (1pm, Irish time), knowing a victory over Russia – whom they beat 9-3 in July – will maintain ‘A’ status for the first time.
Ireland: E Gray (GK), N Symmons, S McCarthy, C Sargent, A O’Flynn, E Smyth, E Clarke, S McCay, J O’Halloran, A Speers, A Connery.
Subs: M Harvey, L Jacob, N Small, C Watkins, L Colvin
Azerbaijan: S Nuriyeva, H Shukurzade, E Muzaffarova, Y-S Kim, M Mammadova, C Shukurova, M-S Aliyeva, Z Suleymanova, H Lee, Z Mammadova, B Kim
Subs: K Aliyeva, J Huseynova, Y Gurbanova, V Shabazova, S Lee
EuroHockey Nations Championships
Pool C results: Belgium 2 (A Raes, J Boon) Italy 0; Ireland 3 (M Harvey, E Clarke, N Symmons) Azerbaijan 1 (Y-S Kim)
Standings: 1. Belgium 6pts (+5) 2. Azerbaijan 3pts (0) 3. Ireland 3pts (-1) 4. Italy 0pts (-4)
Men’s EuroHockey Nations Championships, fixtures (all Irish time):
Pool C: Ireland v Russia, 1pm; Spain v France, 3pm
Semi-finals: Belgium v Netherlands, 5.30pm; Germany v England, 8pm
** For more of Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile’s pics from Ireland vs Azerbaijan, click here
** Field Hockey TV’s highlights package from Ireland vs Azerbaijan
** To hear the post-match press conference with Gene Muller, with questions from Christopher Plass, Stephen Findlater and David Medcalf, click the play button
** For the Hook’s minute by minute coverage of Ireland vs Azerbaijan from this afternoon, check out the live ticker below