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Ireland's standout stars, that stunning free-kick and next month's all-important double-header

Vera Pauw’s side secured a monumental World Cup qualifying result in Finland last night.

THE REPUBLIC OF Ireland women’s national team sparked their World Cup dream with a massive win over Finland in Helsinki last night.

A 2-1 away victory over Group A’s second seeds came as a massive boost to their hopes as they target qualification for a first-ever major tournament.

Here, we run through some talking points.

jamie-finn-heather-payne-denise-osullivan-and-rianna-jarrett-after-the-game Denise O'Sullivan and Heather Payne embrace after the 2-1 win. Source: Kalle Parkkinen/INPHO

1. Denise O’Sullivan and Heather Payne the standout stars

Vera Pauw calls them all tigers, but O’Sullivan and Payne were undoubtedly to the front of the pack last night.

“Denise runs herself into the ground for this team and represents Ireland with the utmost,” as captain, and fellow world-class player, Katie McCabe said last week after the Sweden defeat as the North Carolina Courage star emerged as an injury doubt.

How fortunate the Girls In Green were to have O’Sullivan fully fit last night, epitomising the team’s heart and fight around the middle, while chipping in with moments of magic, and of course, that all-important winner she had no right to nod home.

Her GPS stats would make for interesting reading, as would Payne’s. The 21-year-old has always been an unsung hero for this Irish team, ploughing a lonely furrow up top or isolated on the wing, but she really established herself as a standout star last night.

She absolutely owned injury time, really activating beast mode as she produced a lung-bursting run up the field with the ball to win a corner and relieve ever-mounting pressure on an under-siege Irish defence, before later scrambling back to cut out Finland’s next attack with a slide tackle on the edge of the box.

2. Megan Connolly’s stunning free-kick

With McCabe and Lucy Quinn also standing over the 10th-minute free on the edge of the box, few watching from home would have expected Connolly to pull the trigger.

McCabe is Arsenal’s free-kick specialist, Quinn sent a similar one into the back of the net on her Ireland debut against Australia, but Connolly backed herself. “I was screaming at her to take that free-kick, it was for her,” her Cork counterpart O’Sullivan smiled afterwards.

Just Connolly’s second international goal, it was a superb strike, curled around the wall and into the top corner, leaving Tinja-Riika Korpela with little to no chance.

It was almost a carbon copy of the winner she scored against Sweden at the 2014 U19 European Championship finals (skip to 1:25 here).

It must be noted that Connolly was excellent in midfield alongside O’Sullivan and Jamie Finn too, the trio combining to win that key battle.

3. Niamh Fahey’s vital interception

Vital. Crucial. Pivotal.

Of course, O’Sullivan and Connolly took the goal-scoring headlines, but it might have been a different story had Fahey not stepped up with a last-ditch block on the line to deny Finland’s dangerwoman, Linda Sällström, in the game’s dying minutes.

What looked to be a routine finish would have salvaged a draw for the hosts — and marked Sällström’s 50th international goal — but Fahey threw herself at the ball, after Courtney Brosnan left her goal unguarded.

The long-serving defender was outstanding throughout, alongside her centre-halves Louise Quinn and Savannah McCarthy, all putting in a massive shift.

A special mention must go to McCarthy, who, after ending a five-year wait for her sixth, seventh, and eighth Ireland caps in recent weeks, looks like she was never away.

4. An excellent window for Courtney Brosnan

Coming into the opening double-header of this campaign, there was plenty of debate around the goalkeeping situation. After solid performances against both Sweden and Finland, Brosnan has certainly quietened it down.

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courtney-brosnan-after-the-game Courtney Brosnan after the game. Source: Kalle Parkkinen/INPHO

The US-born shot-stopper has most certainly justified her selection, edging the duel with Grace Moloney for the number one jersey. One argument was that Brosnan is second choice at Everton, while Moloney is Reading’s long-established number one, while the New Jersey native had also been at the centre of a couple of high-profile errors on international duty.

But there were no signs of similar instances over the past two games; Brosnan confident and assured throughout, as she pulled off some top-drawer saves and showed exponential improvement across the board.

As noted above, the one particularly nervy moment, or single blot on her copybook, saw Fahey called to action, but Brosnan has certainly taken her chances, and established herself as Pauw’s number one.

5. Next month’s all-important double-header

Ireland will take serious confidence and belief from their performance last night, and from this international window. Building on this solid start and backing it up with maximum points next month is crucial, though.

The group’s fourth and fifth seeds, Slovakia and Georgia, come to Tallaght Stadium on 25 and 30 November respectively. Performing — and delivering — against lesser sides is the big challenge now, with Pauw previously warning of the potential banana skin Slovakia can pose.

Tallaght should be at full capacity for the clashes, with up on 8,000 tickets expected to be available and a new record attendance imminent. 4,017 were present for the Sweden game just before restrictions loosened, with Amber Barrett saying afterwards it felt like there were 40,000 fans there at times.

She’ll be one of many subs pushing for a place; Liverpool’s Leanne Kiernan another in particular who has her hand firmly in the air.

There are so many interesting story lines and subplots to follow heading into this crucial double-header with this team enjoying an upward trajectory, but two more steps towards the World Cup dream are absolutely key.

BTL 5

About the author:

Emma Duffy

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