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Ireland boss Pauw: 'It's a final, and we're on the fringe to do something special'

The Girls in Green face Ukraine in a decisive Euro qualifier on Friday as they look to reach a first-ever major tournament.

A LITTLE OVER 12 months on from Vera Pauw’s first game in charge, her Ireland side are on the cusp of history.

That October 2019 night, in front of a record crowd at Tallaght Stadium, the Girls in Green produced a brilliant 3-2 European Championship qualifier win over Group I’s second seeds Ukraine.

vera-pauw-celebrates-at-the-final-whistle Ireland manager Vera Pauw after last year's win over Ukraine. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

On Friday in Kiev, they play the crucial return qualifier [KO 5pm Irish time, live on RTÉ 2] . Victory, or a draw, will see Ireland secure a playoff spot as they look to make history and reach a first-ever major tournament.

“We have.. how do you call it, goosebumps,” Pauw said as the squad assembles for a training camp in the German city of Duisburg today. “It’s a final and and we’re on the fringe to do something special.”

Before that win over Ukraine, Ireland — under interim management — opened their campaign with a 2-0 victory over group minnows Montenegro. After it, they were stunned at the death against Greece to leave Athens with a point, before beating them on home soil and taking another three points from Montenegro just ahead of the Covid-19 enforced layoff.

Unbeaten and top of the group at that stage before meeting all-conquering Germany, Ireland’s return to the international arena last month resulted in a 3-0 away loss to the overwhelming group favourites. The Germans went back top, with the group winners set to qualify automatically.

But this was always the big one for Ireland. Ukraine, although seven points adrift, are their second-place rivals (the three best runners-up qualify directly for the finals tournament in England, too, while the six others contest playoffs).

Significant, decisive, crucial, vital; Friday’s showdown is all of those things. Pauw doesn’t need to be told that. It’s been an incredible journey so far, and one that she and her side have learned a lot on. None more so than on that October night in Tallaght.

I learned that Ukraine underestimated us,” the Dutch boss explains, looking back. “I think that they were overwhelmed about our structure and the way that we were approaching them.

“I saw how they played against Greece, which was their latest game… their perseverance to get as many goals as they could and the way that they did it, I learned more from that last game than our first game.

“In our first game, everybody just wanted so much to get a positive result and there was such an intensity, the whole stadium felt this intensity, the crowd brought it on the pitch.

“And now the intensity comes just by the fact that this is a final, it’s final for everybody, both for Ukraine and for us. Ukraine, we all know that they need positive impulse because of all the troubles that they had, and they are looking for positive moments. I’m sure that that that squad is really ready to go for it.”

She smiles.

“But we as well… yesterday I was talking to a player and she said, ‘This is most likely the most important game of my career.’ This was one of the of the veterans.

“It’s fantastic that we can play. I’m very happy that we played Germany last month, so that we’ve seen each other and we know where we stand. We have prepared so we’ll see on the pitch with the final dots on the i.”

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While she cannot stress the enormity of this game enough and the fact that Ireland are on the cusp of something special in this qualification bid, Pauw lets her mind wander slightly.

But never too far ahead.

“We feel if we get to the playoffs, that we have a really, really strong squad to go into the playoffs,” she later added.

Screenshot 2020-10-18 at 13.05.29 Pauw speaking to the media this morning. Source: FAI.

“But we all are also aware that this game could go anywhere, it’s an away game. We have to have a draw to be able to play those playoffs, at least. So we’re also very much aware that it can turn the other side and we have to be absolutely ready.

“It needs to come from out of toes, from deep in our heart, that it will turn out to be our our day. The strength of Ukraine, it is very, very close at the moment.”

Meticulous in their preparation through the pandemic, and hopeful to avoid a Covid outbreak similar to that in Stephen Kenny’s men’s team bubble, Pauw stresses that there are still serious concerns.

She has restricted her movements and isolated as much as possible before coming into camp in Duisburg, as have her staff and players. Testing protocols will be followed before they travel to Kiev on Thursday by charter flight — a first, she believes, for the women’s national team.

Without first-choice goalkeeper Marie Hourihan through injury, Pauw’s current 23-strong squad is fully fit and ready to go. An ankle injury to star defender Diane Caldwell was a worry, but the SC Sand player is “100% fit for camp” after playing a full game with no problems yesterday.

With in-form Reading ‘keeper Grace Moloney, West Ham’s Courtney Brosnan and Niamh Reid Burke of Peamount the three shot-stoppers in the squad, Pauw explained Hourihan’s situation.

“Well, to be honest, there was already a doubt whether Marie would be brought in or not, let’s be open about that. But then her dislocated finger gave that last push because you cannot have the doubt that she can start or a doubt that she can be on the bench.

“I would like to be open with full respect for Marie, she’s taken it on board and is not out of the squad. Marie is very much in the squad. We follow her, we’ve been in contact with her this week several times to monitor her injury and she is on standby.”

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Emma Duffy

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