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Euro hopes hang by a thread as Ireland fall to frustrating defeat in Kiev

An unfortunate first-half own goal by Áine O’Gorman proved fatal on the evening as Ukraine gained the upper hand.

Áine O'Gorman reacts to her first-half own goal.
Áine O'Gorman reacts to her first-half own goal.
Image: Aleksandar Djorovic/INPHO

IRELAND’S BID TO qualify for Euro 2022 suffered a major setback in Kiev as they fell to a deflating 1-0 defeat to hosts Ukraine in Group I.

Had Ireland avoided defeat, they would have secured at least an April play-off opportunity to reach the big show in England in two years’ time, but a calamitous first-half own goal by Áine O’Gorman — via an error by goalkeeper Courtney Brosnan — proved decisive on the scoreboard and put Ireland’s Euros dream on hold.

Most frustrating for manager Vera Pauw was the fact that this was an encounter in which the visitors were the dominant force. Captain Katie McCabe hit the crossbar twice in the first half, once from the penalty spot, but Ireland’s relentless pressure as they chased an equaliser after the restart didn’t result in many gilt-edged opportunities as Ukraine frustrated their efforts and fought for their lives in the group.

The juxtaposition of wild Ukrainian celebrations and Irish tears at the full-time whistle told its own story: Ukraine will now be heavily favoured to usurp Ireland and claim second spot in the group behind Germany. They’re currently four points behind Pauw’s women but have two games remaining which they are expected to win, versus Greece away and Montenegro at home respectively. Ireland, meanwhile, face runaway group leaders Germany at Tallaght Stadium in their one remaining game.

ruesha-littlejohn-dejected Ruesha Littlejohn laments Ireland's defeat. Source: Aleksandar Djorovic/INPHO

“Look, we’re absolutely gutted,” said dejected skipper McCabe post-match. “We gave everything. The positives were there. We stuck to our gameplan but it just wasn’t there for us on the night.

“Of course, they were difficult. They stopped us from playing but I thought we were resilient and kept going and kept that positive play up. It’s up to us, now, to continue that into the Germany game in December.”

Of her missed penalty, McCabe added: “I should be finishing that for sure but we kept in the game. We were sure we were going to get a goal but it just wasn’t to be on the night.

“We have to take the positives from tonight. At times, we played excellent football. I’m so proud of the team and the resillience they showed right to the end. I thought we showed the right attitude and, for sure, we’re going to take that into the Germany game and try to get a result.”

From minute one, Ireland took the game to their group rivals with Ukraine setting up a low block and absorbing early probes into their territory.

megan-connolly-with-daryna-apanaschenko Ireland's Megan Connolly with Daryna Apanaschenko of Ukraine. Source: Aleksandar Djorovic/INPHO

On 16 minutes, days after she netted a stunner from the right-hand side for Arsenal, a more central McCabe free-kick kissed the crossbar on its way over — Ireland’s most conspicuous warning sign to that point.

Ukraine gained more of a foothold for a spell thereafter, at least in terms of keeping the ball for more than a couple of passes at a time, but remained ultra-defensive and wary of Ireland’s goal threat.

All of which made it even more frustrating for Pauw’s side when they gift-wrapped Ukraine’s opener, an under-pressure O’Gorman playing a firm but scarcely rocketed pass back to ‘keeper Brosnan only to catch the West Ham woman badly out of position. Brosnan’s chase was made in vain as the ball rolled cruelly into the net, O’Gorman burying her head in the turf as Ukraine revelled in her moment of misfortune.

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Brosnan sniffed out a more intentionally created Ukraine opportunity moments later and Ireland quickly regained their composure, so much so that it took less than 10 minutes before the were themselves awarded a golden opportunity to draw level.

Lyubov Shmatko should have received what would have been her second yellow — albeit the first was soft — as she chopped down Denise O’Sullivan inside the area. Ireland were at least awarded a penalty by Croatian referee Ivana Martincic. Up stepped McCabe, but she saw her effort cannon off the crossbar.

On the stroke of half-time, Pauw’s side came within a whisper once more. Rianna Jarrett collected a superb, looped pass by Heather Payne, forcing her way behind the Ukrainian rearguard only to see her eventual poked effort rolling only as far as a defender who cleared it off the line or near enough to it. That defender happened to be Shmatko.

Ireland upped the tempo early in the second half, fashioning a succession of half-chances and scrambles. There were shouts for another penalty on the hour when McCabe attempted to weave her way through a couple of simultaneous challenges at the corner of the Ukrainan area but, while there was undoubted contact made with her, she was probably fairly adjudged to have sought it and only half-heartedly remonstrate with referee Martincic.

Payne was starting to become a significant thorn in the Ukrainian’s left-hand side, her raids down the right flank often proving fruitful. She gave Ukraine substitute Ganna Voronina such a torrid time that the left-back was substituted back off on 70 minutes having picked up a yellow card — a shrewd move by Ukraine boss Natalia Zinchenko at a juncture in which the game felt as though it was on a knife-edge and Ireland merely needed something to fall in their favour.

louise-quinn-with-darya-kravets Louise Quinn wins a header. Source: Aleksandar Djorovic/INPHO

The sense that something might go their way, though, began to flag as they were reduced to hitting hopeful long balls and long-range efforts, both McCabe and O’Sullivan firing high and wide respectively, while Ukraine rightly made utter nuisances of themselves and bereaved the game of tempo, structure and, indeed, play.

Pauw introduced 16-year-old Wexford Youths attacking midfielder Ellen Molloy alongside striker Amber Barrett with seven minutes remaining, both of whose impacts were felt, but it centre-back Quinn — advanced as part of a late gamble — who came closest to bringing Ireland to parity on 84. Her firm header, however, went just over the bar.

What had been pencilled in as a special night for Irish women’s football became one to forget, Ukraine holding out and taking a significant step towards at least the play-offs as Ireland rued their inability to convert pressure into clearer-cut chances and, more importantly goals.

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