Friday 3 February 2023 Dublin: 11°C
Ryan Byrne/INPHO Diane Caldwell fires home.
# European dream
Caldwell the goal-scoring hero as unbeaten Ireland move closer to history with nervy Euro qualifier win
The Girls In Green were 1-0 winners over group rivals Greece at Tallaght Stadium.

Ireland 1
Greece 0

THREE CRUCIAL POINTS, one step closer to reaching a first-ever major tournament.

It was another nervy outing against Greece as Vera Pauw’s unbeaten Ireland were pushed all the way in this must-win Euro 2021 qualifier, but a decisive goal on the stroke of half-time was the match-winning moment as 4,511 watched on at Tallaght Stadium.

Seconds before the break — and after an extremely threatening first-half showing — Diane Caldwell marked her 75th cap with her second international goal to put the Girls in Green 1-0 up.

Denise O’Sullivan’s excellence around the middle and a player-of-the-match performance from West Ham star Ruesha Littlejohn were also key for the hosts, though there were some heart-in-the-mouth moments in a nail-biting finish.

But thankfully, Ireland’s bid to reach England 2021 lives on, as they remain unbeaten.

Before tonight, Ireland were second in Group I — which has already effectively been won by Germany after they scored 31 goals without reply and lost just one of their last 22 matches — with main rivals Greece, the only other side with points, in third.

With a double-header against the all-conquering Germans yet to come, the race is well and truly on for second place as the group winners and three best second-placed sides qualify automatically. The six other runners-up head for play-offs.

Now, a win has put the Girls in Green six points clear of Greece, and two behind Germany.

In Ireland’s most recent outing, the Greeks rescued a last-gasp draw in Athens and understandably, it came as a huge anti-climax after wins over second seeds Ukraine (3-2) and group minnows Montengro (2-0). It almost felt like a loss on the road to England 2021.

Pauw said earlier this week that Ireland would “do something different,” and they started with a 4-2-3-1 formation. Much-changed to the XI that lined out in Athens, Brighton & Hove Albion striker Rianna Jarrett returned to lead the line, while formerly-retired Áine O’Gorman earned her 101st cap at full-back and Littlejohn also came in.

It was Scottish-born Littlejohn who had Ireland’s first chance in the third minute, but her audacious effort sailed over. The hosts enjoyed the lion’s share of possession, as Greece set up ultra-defensively from the get-go.

katie-mccabe-and-despoina-chatzinikolaou Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ireland's Katie McCabe and Despoina Chatzinikolaou of Greece. Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Heather Payne was lively down the right and created several chances for the hosts, while O’Sullivan was denied by Greek ‘keeper Anthi Papakonstantinou in the 10th minute off the back of a scramble in the box.

Pauw’s side were creating chance after chance as Jarrett threatened, and captain Katie McCabe appeared to be taken down in the box early on, but referee Arantza Gallastegui Pérez awarded a free out, much to the crowd’s disdain. 

Under pressure, Danai-Eleni Sidira and Anastasia Gkatsou led the visitors’ defensive effort, but world-class O’Sullivan continued to inspire the Irish charge. Her brilliance really stood out in the 20th minute, when she cleared a Greek corner with a mind-blowing turn on the edge of her own box and broke up the field.

Solid centre-half Louise Quinn saw a headed effort veer wide moments later, while another O’Gorman shot was dealt with by Papakonstantinou. At the other end, Sidira broke, leaving the Girls In Green players around the middle for dead, but her weak effort swept wide.

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As the minutes to half-time ticked down, Ireland really needed a goal. After McCabe and Littlejohn misses — she was blocked down by captain Natalia Chatzigiannidou — they were finally rewarded in the 45th minute.

Claps came from all around when referee Pérez awarded Ireland a free kick from the right, after some harsh calls. McCabe sent it in, her Arsenal team-mate Quinn knocked it on and Caldwell was there to tap in from two yards.

Ireland’s first-half dominance continued into the second, as Florida State University star Payne sent a header wide from the back post, after a brilliant Jarrett cross.

Littlejohn, who threatened throughout, probably should have made it 2-0 in the 50th minute. Papakonstantinou saved her first effort off her right foot, and the Hammers attacker scuffed the rebound with her left.

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

It was around the hour-mark that things turned stop-start, and the Greeks grew into the game. Both sides introduced fresh legs, with Payne forced off through injury. Veatriki Sarri really threatened when she came on, and Marie Hourihan was kept on her toes more in the second period.

Littlejohn again blazed over in the 74th minute after a lovely break from substitute Julie-Ann Russell, while Sarri curled a shot wide at the other end just after. The Irish goalscorer against Greece last time, Amber Barrett, found the back of the net once again in the dying minutes, but the substitute was deemed offside, while O’Gorman came close again.

The ending was certainly nervy, as Barrett whisped another shot just wide and Hourihan was called to action through the five additional minutes.

But Ireland closed it out, and the focus now switches to Montenegro away on Wednesday.

IRELAND: Marie Hourihan; Áine O’Gorman, Louise Quinn, Diane Caldwell, Harriet Scott; Niamh Fahey, Denise O’Sullivan; Katie McCabe, Ruesha Littlejohn (Clare Shine, 86), Heather Payne (Julie-Ann Russell, 63); Rianna Jarrett (Amber Barrett, 71)

GREECE: Papakonstantinou; Chatzinikolaou, Sidira, Chatzigiannidou; Kynossidou (Spyridonidou, 83), Markou, Kakambouki, Gkatsou; Kongouli (Sarri, 65), Kokoviadou, Moraitou (Vardali, 65)

Referee: María Dolores Martinez Madrona (Spain)

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