Hockey World League Round 2
Ireland 1 (M Nelson) Italy 0
Matthew Nelson’s single goal in the 25th minute was enough to see Ireland top their group at Hockey World League Round 2 in Stormont, setting up a quarter-final date with Poland on Thursday evening.
The Lisnagarvey teenager got on the end of a Sean Murray pass for the vital goal. From there, Ireland made a number of decent moves as they sought a second goal to make the game safer but none were forthcoming, meaning the tie remained in the balance.
It was, perhaps, the second most important goal Nelson had scored against Italy in the last nine months, the first being one which kept Ireland’s Under-18s in the top tier of European competition last summer.
Speaking afterwards, coach Craig Fulton said of the performance: “We created enough good chances in the game and deserved the win. We had three good chances saved off the line and all credit to Italy, they defended well. We are happy with the win.”
The Italians have shown in the tournament to date they have ability beyond their rating as the lowest ranked side in the competition at number 34. That is, in no small part, due to the addition of six players born elsewhere – including five from Argentina – who have been incorporated into their panel in recent times.
Indeed, Thomas Keenan – whose grandfather hailed from Cork before emigrating to South America – saved a Jonny McKee effort off the line while Ireland bossed most of the early stages.
Eugene Magee stamped down a marker of intent in the opening minutes as he fired two passes into the circle, both just missing his awaiting team mates. Magee then linked up with Shane O’Donoghue to bulldoze through the middle but his reverse shot was over the bar.
Jamie Wright and Nelson were next to expose the Italian defence as they darted down the left wing, the pace of the Green Machine seemed to catch out the Italians more than once.
David Harte was called into action in the 12th minute with a series of three Italian corners but the two-time world goalie of the year held firm.
The Irish chances kept coming in the second quarter. Conor Harte saw his corner drag saved early in the second quarter. Keenan saved the Italians blushes when McKee beat Enrico Francesconi in goal as the retreating defender made a fine stick save to keep the score at 1-0.
Harte and Matthew Bell, winning his 50th cap, continued to puncture the Italian line with their driving runs into their opponents half. The Italian defence was eventually broken in the 25th minute when Ronan Gormley found Murray who broke into the circle and set Nelson to tap-in his third goal of the tournament.
McKee, Harte and Paul Gleghorne all saw their shots and deflections go either high or wide as the Green Machine tried to add to their tally.
Italy enjoyed greater possession in the second half though chances still came for Ireland. O’Donoghue drew a fine save from a drag-flick while he also had the ball pipped from under him when primed to shoot.
McKee was causing havoc in the Italian defence and again dummied Francesconi, leaving the goal exposed but Keenan and Julien Dallons were on hand to save and clear the shot.
The Italians upped the ante in the final quarter and pushed hard for an equaliser. Both Julian and Juan Montone were forcing some chances but in truth the Irish circle was rarely infiltrated nor the Irish defence particularly troubled. Ireland ran out deserved winners while Italy owe much to Keenan and Francesconi for keeping the score at 1-0.
Ireland now go into the quarter-finals unbeaten and face a Poland side who lost three out of three in the group phase, falling 1-0 to Scotland on Tuesday morning. A third place finish overall will see Ireland qualify for World League Round 3 where the World Cup tickets are decided, making this first knock-out game all-important.
The tie will take place at 4.45pm at Stormont on Thursday and will be followed up by the Ulster Schoolboys Burney Cup final between Wallace HS and Sullivan Upper at 7pm at the same venue.
Elsewhere, Austria finished Pool A in second with a 4-2 win over Ukraine despite a red card for Patrick Stanzl. France bossed Pool B with three wins from three, edging out Wales 1-0. The Welsh ended up second with Scotland third, 1-0 winners over Poland courtesy of an Alan Forsyth wonder goal.
In the other Thursday quarter-finals, France play Ukraine (10am), Austria face Scotland (2.30pm) and Wales take on Italy (12.15pm).
Ireland: D Harte, J Bell, M Bell, R Gormley, M Nelson, E Magee, S O’Donoghue, J McKee, P Gleghorne, C Harte, J Wright
Subs: B Walker, C Cargo, J Duncan, L Cole, S Murray, J Carr, N Glassey
Italy: E Francesconi, J Dallons, S Herrera, G Ursone, D Grossi, T Keenan, L Dussi, L da Gai, Julian Montone, Juan Montone, M Amorosini
Subs: N Mondo, L Lixi, F Lai, A Nunez, F Padovani, G Carta, M Malucchi