Women’s EuroHockey Nations Championships
Pool C: Ireland 4 (E Clarke, N Symmons, A Connery, S McCay) Italy 1 (A Padalino)
Gene Muller’s Irish women completed the great escape early this morning with another big win, this time getting the better of an Italian side who finished the tournament rock bottom with five successive defeat.
At the start of day’s play, Ireland’s primary task was to outdo Azerbaijan’s result. Playing first, it was a matter of setting a marker and they did that with a comprehensive success.
Ireland had endured a decidedly ropey opening period in which Francesca Faustini contrived to round Emma Gray but blaze wide from the centre of the circle while Gray’s bicep was instrumental in denying Alessia Padalino’s close range reverse.
But a golden spell from the 17th to 19th minute defined the game. Again, midfielders joining the attack were pivotal as Aine Connery drifted infield past a couple of tackles and laid off for Emma Clarke.
Her shot had some venom but was straight at the left palm of Roberta Lilliu but she contrived to guide the ball into the bottom corner, a big stroke of fortune which sapped the energy from the Italians.
Within a minute, Nikki Symmons was doing a now trademark celebration as Speers played her in for another sliding finish. And the goal-glut was complete when Emma Smyth – from a third right-wing incursion – arrowed a cross to Connery on the back-post to sweep home from close range.
O’Halloran then stung Lilliu’s foot with a low rasper as Ireland looked to set an imposing target for Azerbaijan in the closing Pool C tie.
Italy still could make threats, though, as Ireland required Sinead McCarthy’s steady hands to push Fasutini’s gentle lob off the line after Gray had been beaten.
At all times, it was a bruising affair with the umpires allowing some decisions go early which saw the agro and ante raised. Italy shipped a card before the break and lost their captain Chiara Tiddi in a coming together with Lisa Jacob.
Alex Speers could have made it 4-0 in the 39th minute when she dummied Lilliu but could not get the shot off and Ireland were back in perilous territory when Alessia Padalino – an indoor world cup winner with the Netherlands – found room in the circle for a big wind, hitting into the bottom left corner.
Emma Smyth took a card for dissent soon after and Chiara Padalino could have made it 3-2 when she made a limp attempt to a slow-motion ball into the circle which rolled into the backboard and just needed a touch. Her frustrations saw her soon after sent to the bin.
With 15 minutes to go, Ireland were currently setting Azerbaijan the task of a one-goal win over Belgium. Conceding one more would not change matters but any larger margin would make life even tougher for the Azeris.
Knowing this, Muller switched to three at the back and a fourth midfielder which drew dividends immediately as Chloe Watkins won the first of six corners in the closing quarter – the rest of the game saw none.
The fourth – three minutes from time – cracked the crossbar from Smyth’s ramp to O’Flynn’s drag. Ireland called hopefully for an upgrade to a stroke via video referral for a nudge on Smyth, but to no avail.
From the reset, O’Flynn’s next drag was saved onto a foot giving a sixth chance. Lilliu got down low to save but McCay was on hand to snap up what might have been a pivotal goal.
Speaking directly after the tie, coach Muller gave his synopsis of the match: “It was a much closer game than 4-1. We were fortunate to get three goals in a short space of time. The Italian team is extremely difficult to play against. They have skilful players and threat over distance so it was difficult to know what pressure to play. I was happy we won but we are in the lap of the Gods as to whether we stay up.”
Asked by Talk Hockey Radio’s Peter Savage about Ireland’s attacking style, Muller said it was a welcome change to see his side on the right end of a quick string of goals.
“Sometimes we’ve been on the receiving end of that this tournament. In the last three matches, we’ve been quite flowing at times. After the first two, we managed to find a little bit more freedom and played with less fear and it worked out for us. Sometimes the players carry too much with them onto the field. There’s been a lot more chances created and attractive hockey.”
Looking to the future, Muller was also asked about a proposed trip to Argentina as part of the pre-Olympic qualifiers build-up, responding that it is a cost issue.
“It’s aspirational and a monetary issue. I’m not sure we can afford to go to Argentina. What we would like to do and what we can afford to do are two different things. It’s in the plans but whether it is realised, I’m not sure. The alternative is training and then see if we can get matches before the qualifiers.”
Those qualifiers take place in one of three venues – Belgium, India and Japan – with one Olympic place available from each qualifier, set to take place in early 2012.
Women’s EuroHockey Nations Championships
Pool C: Ireland 4 (E Clarke, N Symmons, A Connery, S McCay) Italy 1 (A Padalino); Belgium 3 (C de Vos, B Nelen, J Boon) Azerbaijan 1 (H Shukuradze)
Standings: 1. Belgium 9pts (+7) 2. Ireland 6pts (+2) 3. Azerbaijan 3pts (-2) 4. Italy 0pts (-7)
** Video highlights from today’s game from Field Hockey TV
** To read back on The Hook’s love coverage of Ireland’s 4-1 win over Italy, check out our minute-by-minute coverage below