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'Monumental' should Ireland qualify, praise for 'world-class' O'Sullivan and a must-win game behind closed doors

Diane Caldwell will again lead the Girls In Green’s defence against Montenegro this afternoon.

IRELAND STAR DEFENDER Diane Caldwell says it would be “monumental” if the Girls In Green were to reach a first-ever major tournament. 

Vera Pauw’s side continue their Euro 2021 qualification campaign against Montenegro this afternoon [KO 3pm, live on RTÉ], with the FAI confirming this morning that it will be played behind closed doors amid the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak.

diane-caldwell-celebrates-scoring-the-first-goal Diane Caldwell celebrates her goal against Greece with Denise O'Sullivan. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Should Ireland win the crunch qualifier, they would go top of Group I. All-conquering Germany currently sit top, and will have a game in hand.

But with the group winners and three best second-placed sides qualifying automatically and the six other runners-up heading for play-offs, three points in Budva today would leave Ireland in good stead ahead of their final three games.

Germany-based Caldwell — Ireland’s goal-scoring hero against Greece last week: “A bit of a surprise, I don’t score many but it’s always nice to score,” she said after hitting her second international goal on the night of her 75th cap — is confident they can do it. 

Though she wouldn’t get too far ahead of herself early on in the post-match mixed zone, she eventually allowed herself to dream for a few minutes when the prospect of reaching England 2021 was put to her. 

“We are in a good position but we just have to keep focused and — I know it’s an old cliché but — get the three points in the next game,” the SC Sand player said.

But in terms of the overall picture, I don’t even know how to describe it, it would be just a dream come true.

“But we are more than capable. You can see the group of players we have now, everyone is playing at a really high level, which makes the difference. We never had that years ago. We had a handful of professionals, not even maybe.

“But you can see that we have so much talent now; good strong players, athletic players, and we can compete with the top teams.

“It would mean everything to me and to this team to qualify.”

The Balbriggan native notes that coming so close in 2019 World Cup qualification in an extremely tough group alongside eventual finalists the Netherlands, and Norway, instilled belief that this group can achieve something special. 

There is serious momentum behind the team, it’s just about breaking that duck and finally reaching the Holy Grail of a debut major tournament.

diane-caldwell-on-her-75th-appearance Caldwell and her team-mates pre-Greece. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“You can see with the success of the last World Cup that women’s football is on the up and up,” Caldwell continued. “If we were to do something here in Ireland, you know what the Irish fans are like, everyone would get behind us and it would be monumental.

“It would be a great occasion and for the next generation it would give them something to believe in, and something to strive towards.”

After the hard-fought 1-0 win over Greece at Tallaght Stadium, Caldwell was also full of praise for Ireland’s midfield maestro Denise O’Sullivan.

Described as “one of the best players in the world” by manager Pauw, Cork-born O’Sullivan has been making waves Stateside with North Carolina Courage, and in Australia for her off-season.

Consistently brilliant, the 26-year-old was a shining light for Ireland yet again last Thursday, dropping to play in the six position while West Ham attacker Ruesha Littlejohn produced a Player-of-the-Match display in O’Sullivan’s usual 10 role.

“I mean Denise is our best player… by far,” Caldwell smiled when her team-mate’s name was mentioned. “I love playing with Denise, she can just do anything.

When you play on the European or world stage, there are more eyes watching you and you get more of an audience. You get more credit then. You can start to see in the last year that she is finally getting the plaudits she deserves, because she is winning those MVPs and winning those leagues.

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“But since she stepped onto the scene I could see that she was world-class — she just didn’t get the recognition she deserved and I don’t know why that was.

“Maybe it’s because she’s in America and a lot of the press seems to be orientated towards the English girls. Of course it’s proximity, it’s close. But you have Denise doing amazing things over in America and you have other players abroad as well.”

diane-caldwell-celebrates-scoring-the-first-goal-with-denise-osullivan Caldwell celebrates her goal with Denise O'Sullivan. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

After prevailing in their must-win game over Greece with a disciplined performance through a nervy ending, all eyes turn to Budva this afternoon. 

Another three points would go a long way in the grand scheme of things with three massive games coming up (Germany away in April, Ukraine away in May and the Germans at home in September) but the entire focus is on Montenegro. 

Ireland beat the group minnows 2-0 in their opener with an unsettled squad and their opponents lined out ultra-defensively, as did Greece. The same is expected once again.

“There was pressure against Greece as well,” 31-year-old Caldwell concluded. “We had to win that one. It’s just the same again. We are more than capable of doing it.

“We just have to play similarly again. We are not a team that scores many goals, but we just have to be a bit more clinical, a bit more ruthless.”

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Emma Duffy

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