Bryan Keane/INPHO Ireland's Diane Caldwell and Lieke Martens of the Netherlands.
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'We want to upset the big two' - Ireland begin double-header with Norway on World Cup mission
Colin Bell’s side are back in action at Tallaght Stadium this evening before travelling to Stavanger to face the top seeds again on Tuesday.

EVENTS OVER THE next four days will have a major bearing on the Republic of Ireland’s hopes of qualifying for a first Women’s World Cup.

Colin Bell’s side have enjoyed an encouraging campaign thus far, and sit second in Group 3 thanks to 10 points from a possible 15.

With leaders the Netherlands still unbeaten, it looks like the Girls in Green face a battle with third-placed Norway — one point behind with a game in-hand — for the runners-up spot and, with it, possible progress to a two-legged play-off.

The sides meet in the first leg of a double-header at Tallaght Stadium this evening (5.30pm kick-off) before playing again at Viking Stadion in Stavanger on Tuesday.

“We looked at these fixtures when they came out at the start of the campaign, and it was obvious that they were going to be the deciders for that second place,” Ireland defender Diane Caldwell said yesterday.

“We know what’s on the line and how important these two games are, but we’ve had a good week of training with very good analysis so we’re well-prepared for their style of play. It’s just about us giving everything.”

Ranked 14th in the world, the Norwegians will provide formidable opponents for Ireland and they were actually top seeds when group draw was made.

Despite being without three-time Champions League winner and 2016 European Player of the Year Ada Hegerberg — as the Lyon striker opted to take a break from international football last summer — Martin Sjögren’s squad isn’t short of talent.

29-year-old Caldwell spent four years in Norway at Avaldsnes IL, so she has played alongside and against a number of her latest opponents.

Lucky for us, she [Hegerberg] is taking a break right now, but they have other world-class players,” says Caldwell. “The likes of Maren Mjelde in the midfield, who is an ex-team-mate of mine from Avaldsnes, and now plays with Chelsea. She’s a really vital player for them and dictates the play.

“I also played with Elise Thorsnes, a striker who is dangerous and very physically strong. She’s a powerful girl. They’ve got Isabell Herlovsen too, another striker and a clinical finisher.

“They’ve got a lot of big names who can produce on the big stage, so we’re going to have to be well-prepared.”

Imago 20170915 Imago / PA Images Norway captain Maren Mjelde (right) and Northern Ireland's Rachel Furness. Imago / PA Images / PA Images

Caldwell adds: “I’m well aware of the strengths and also aware of their weakness. We know that they’re a top team in women’s football. They have won Olympic Games and they regularly get to the latter stages of European Championships and World Cups.

“We know that we’re up against a world-class team in women’s football so we’re not under any illusions.”

Bell has brought defensive solidity to the Irish team and they have conceded just three goals in five competitive outings. However, Norway possess plenty of firepower and had an aggregate score of 7-1 against Northern Ireland, so keeping them at bay for 90-plus minutes will require high levels of concentration.

“That was one of the things he wanted to implement first in this team — to keep the teams that we face out,” Caldwell tells. “That obviously makes it easier for us to win games because you only have to score one goal.

“It’s something we’ve been working on and we were able to keep a lot of clean sheets up until the last two games, but it was disappointing to concede the way we did against Slovakia and the Netherlands.

“It’s just vital for us in these next two games to try to keep the back door closed, and then try to develop our game and take it to the next level offensively.”

Colin Bell Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ireland manager Colin Bell speaking yesterday. Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Already without the injured Megan Campbell, Stephanie Roche, Ruesha Littlejohn and Roma McLaughin as well as Heather Payne, Amy Boyle-Carr and Saoirse Noonan (sitting their Leaving Certificate), Bell has had more fitness worries to deal with this week.

Current FAI Player of the Year Harriet Scott returned to the squad after a broken collarbone, but now misses out after picking up a knee problem. Goalkeeper Marie Hourihan and midfielder Niamh Fahey are doubts, while Amber Barrett — scorer of the late winner against Slovakia in April — is trying to regain full fitness after sustaining an injury for Peamount United.

There was a welcome sight at the team’s training camp in Dublin this week, however, as Wexford Youths striker Rianna Jarrett linked up with the international set-up for the first time since March 2016.

At just 23, she has already had to deal with three ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) injuries, but Bell sees plenty of potential in the forward.

She still doesn’t have the fitness levels that you need at international football, but she has that little x-factor,” he said.

“She’s a potentially class player, but she needs to get much fitter, she knows that, and stay healthy. It would be fantastic if she can do that after three cruciates, that is a massive ask to come back from. We’re hopeful and she knows she has to do her part. That will be the major part — to remain fit — and I just wanted her in this atmosphere to sample it and see what it’s about.

“Hopefully that will whet her appetite for more and I think we’re really achieving that at the moment. She’s an intelligent girl, an intelligent footballer, so it’s good to have her out.”

Rianna Jarrett Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ireland's Rianna Jarrett training on Thursday. Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

There have been comments coming out of the Norway camp suggesting that they are already looking beyond these two fixtures and towards their showdown with the Netherlands in September. And while the visitors will undoubtedly be favourites to finish among the top two, Ireland’s manager insists his side shouldn’t be underestimated.

Reading the press in Norway, they expect six points from these two matches and they think they’ll beat Slovakia and then have their final against Holland to try and finish first,” he added.

“If you think back to the game they lost in Holland, they could have won because Maren [Mjelde] missed a penalty and it would have been 1-0 for Norway. There were 10 seconds to go when [Vivianne] Miedema scored the winner for the Netherlands. They’ll have that in their heads and there is no way Norway will want to go into a play-off.

“That’s our chance. We can force the issue over the next few matches and get into the play-off. If we finish third, that’s normal for everybody but we want to upset the big two.”

A record 4,047-strong crowd showed up at Tallaght for the Dutch defeat in April, but the 5.30pm Friday start may make it impossible for some to make kick-off. The game isn’t being aired on television but The42 will be providing a liveblog, full-time report and post-match reaction.

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