Ireland left chasing semi-final berth after opening loss
Ireland women suffered a 2-0 loss to favourites Spain in their opening match of the Women’s FIH Hockey Nations Cup this afternoon. Sean Dancer’s side were chasing the game almost from the outset as Spain started the game in electric fashion, winning a penalty corner inside two minutes and slotting home a slick drag flick past Elizabeth Murphy in goal.
Ireland applied good pressure throughout the match, forcing Spain to play a lot inside their own half and winning possession with regularity. It was the final pass that was missing for the girls in green which is an element they will hope to rectify moving forward in the tournament.
After that opening shock, Ireland grew into the match and forward Zara Malseed had a good chance to bring her side level when Ireland won the ball in the press in the sixth minute, but her powerful shot went wide. And when they won a penalty corner with four seconds left on the clock in the first quarter, Irish supporters were up on their feet. Spain opted not to send out a flyer and an Ireland runner was judged to have obstructed in the circle, and so the chance was squandered as a free out was awarded to Spain.
The second quarter went much the way of the first, with Spain winning an early penalty corner which Ireland dealt with well on this occasion. Then Malseed again had a chance to level things up when she shot on the reverse and drew a save by the Spanish keeper.
Lizzy Murphy in goal made some important interventions, showing confidence while deputising for Ireland’s usual first-choice keeper, Ayeisha McFerran. Another penalty corner for Spain was shot wide late on in the quarter and Ireland went on a quick break, showing how dangerous they are on the counter but late Ireland pressure didn’t result in an outcome and the score remained 1-0 to Spain at half-time.
The host nation began the second half just how they began the first, winning a penalty corner and scoring with devastating precision. A sweep from the left of the circle was deflected on the backhand into the roof of the net, showing why Spain look to win corners whenever they are in the opposition’s circle, and that second goal knocked the stuffing out of Ireland.
Dancer’s charges kept pushing, though, with Christina Hamill and Sarah Hawkshaw, in particular, making inroads, and a well-won corner in the 40th minute was the reward. Roisin Upton dragged low to the left, but Spain saved well. Ireland had much of the possession and maintained the pressure on Spain, who marked and defended tightly, absorbing everything the green machine threw at them.
In the final quarter, Spain played the sidelines well and opened Ireland up as they tried to push for goals, Roisin Upton foraying forward with her characteristic, mazy runs. With two goals in front, though, Spain were able to sit deep when defending and gave Ireland no space to attack into as large amounts of possession came to nothing for the girls in green.
Coach Sean Dancer is not too worried about the position Ireland now find themselves in. He said: “I was pleased with the overall performance today. It’s been a big learning curve for a lot of these girls and it started with the World Cup (in the summer). After the World Cup we reviewed and we really worked hard on a few areas so it was great to see those areas come through today. We want to play with speed, tempo, we want to use the skills that we have and it was great to that working well today.
“We want to be in the semi-final when it gets to that stage so tomorrow is really important for us. We played some good hockey today, at stages we controlled the game well, and that’s what we need to take into tomorrow’s performance.” With that being said, he felt that with a bit more cutting edge, it could have been a different result. “Losing 2-0 is disappointing, especially with the flow of the game. Both teams had some good opportunities and to Spain’s credit they took their two penalty corners quite well – difficult to stop – so we’re disappointed with the result.”
Ireland captain Katie Mullan is excited about how much her team still has to give in this tournament. “It was a tough first game, I think we dominated at times, we had some really good opportunities and unfortunately, we just weren’t clinical enough. I think Spain really took their opportunities when they had them. They were efficient off their penalty corner attack and there’s a few things now for us to go away and learn from and prepare for tomorrow’s game, but we’re really excited. We’re playing some nice hockey and all eyes are on tomorrow now.”
Ireland play their second Pool A match tomorrow (Monday) at 9.45am against Italy and Dancer says playing one of the top teams in Spain today, sets them up well for the remaining matches. “Spain and India are the two highest-ranked teams here; both are going to be very hard to beat. I think it helps us for tomorrow’s game that we played well against Spain. Italy are a different opponent but with the Italian and Argentinian influence, there are similar plays to what Spain did today, so we’re looking forward to the opportunity to take a step up again tomorrow and keep doing the things we did well today,” he added.
Today’s loss means Ireland, most likely, need to win their remaining two pool matches against Italy and Korea to finish in the top two of their group and into the semi-final matches later this week. The team that wins the final of the Inaugural FIH Hockey Nations Cup, wins a spot in the 2023 FIH Pro League.