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Ryan Byrne/INPHO Celebrations after Lily Agg's decisive goal.
# The dream continues
Ireland secure historic World Cup play-off with victory over Finland
A record crowd of 6,952 watched on at Tallaght Stadium.

Republic of Ireland 1

Finland 0


The Republic of Ireland women’s national team’s World Cup dream hit new heights at a sold-out Tallaght Stadium tonight, as Vera Pauw’s side secured an historic play-off spot.

The Girls In Green have never reached a major tournament – the closest they’ve come the Euro 2009 play-off defeat – but a second-half header from super-sub Lily Agg moved them further down the road on a famous night.

A record crowd of 6,952 watched on, the atmosphere electric and the outpour of emotion visible as history was confirmed at the final whistle.

The performance itself wasn’t pretty, but it’s a case of job done. Ireland found a way.

Billed a “final” over and over again by Pauw, this was effectively a play-off for the play-offs against second-place rivals and second seeds Finland. Victory guaranteed a safe ticket to the convoluted next stage in October. Defeat or a draw meant pressure to secure a result against Slovakia in Senec next Tuesday.

Ireland occupied the coveted second place beforehand, a point to the better, ultimately due to their monumental 2-1 win in Helsinki last October, with one also taken from runaway group winners Sweden in Gothenburg.

This was effectively a must-win game for Finland to keep their own hopes alive, though they came in amidst no shortage of unrest: U17 manager Marko Saloranta is in temporary charge after Anna Signeul’s sacking and a poor Euros showing. The Finns — ranked 29th in Fifa’s world rankings, three places below Ireland at their recently-equalled record high — were also without experienced midfield stars, Adelina Engman and Emmi Alanen, due to injury, with Niamh Fahey in the same boat for Ireland.

emma-koivisto-and-jessica-ziu Tom Maher / INPHO Finalnd's Emma Koivisto and Jess Ziu of Ireland. Tom Maher / INPHO / INPHO

The excellent Megan Connolly dropped deeper in her absence, joining Louise Quinn and Diane Caldwell in th back three. Injury-ravaged Megan Campbell made her long-awaited return to the XI at left-wing back, with Jamie Finn on the right. That allowed Jess Ziu to push on, like captain Katie McCabe on the other side, with Denise O’Sullivan and Ruesha Littlejohn in the middle. Heather Payne started up top.

It was a nervy start for Ireland, the hosts living dangerously at times. Finland kicked off on the front foot, with Finn and Connolly making vital interceptions amidst goalmouth scrambles after Brosnan flapped at an early corner.

With no shortage of empty seats around the ground as fans arrived late, the crowd were nervous too. As ‘Ireland, Ireland’ eventually rung around the stadium, the team began to find their feet. There were mistakes through a stop-start opening — McCabe, in particular, was at the centre of a few altercations, mixing fire with ice as she urged calm.

Campbell played her part in helping them settle with some decent deliveries — her trademark long throw-ins, in particular — but Ireland struggled to gain a real foothold in midfield.

Brosnan comfortably claimed a Ria Öling shot, Quinn defended expertly and threatened at the other end with her head, and McCabe let fly. A corner followed that powerful effort, and Ireland looked to have a goal with 26 minutes on the clock: Connolly went deep with the set-piece, Quinn knocked it back in and Caldwell hit the underside of the bar with a header. The assistant had the flag up though, deeming Quinn and ball to be out of play.

Directly afterwards, Brosnan showed incredible reflexes to save a certain Finland goal after a scramble. While O’Sullivan struggled to get into the game at times in the first half — she roared into it in the second — McCabe and Campbell linked up well down the left. It was a difficult night for the Cork star’s midfield partner Littlejohn too, who signalled to be substituted off around the 40th minute, owing to a foot injury.

Agg sprung from the bench, and offered something different, looking lively from the get-go. Payne, too, came into the game more and more, her shot off a Campbell free-kick saved by Tinja-Riika Korpela. Heidi Kollanen sent an effort over at the other end, and that was the half.

Ireland started the second period much brighter: Korpela had to keep Caldwell out twice in quick succession, the first off a Campbell throw and the second a toe-poke after a clamber.

The Goal arrived in the 54th minute, when Agg turned in a Connolly free-kick, which was won by McCabe. Agg did brilliantly to get in front of Korpela and send a looping header over her into the back of the net. It was Emma Koivisto who fouled McCabe, shown yellow and off the field for the goal.

It could have been two shortly afterwards, as Ireland racked up more chances. Payne was played through one-on-one, but she sent her effort straight at Korpela. Finland just about cleared a Connolly corner, before McCabe blazed over.

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Kollanen did likewise at the other end, their star Linda Sällström not exactly sparking to life. To Ireland’s credit, they were much better defensively in the second half, though referee Stéphanie Frappart frustrated them with yellow cards: one to Finn for time-wasting on a throw-in particularly aggrieving as it suspends her for Slovakia.

katie-mccabe-and-denise-osullivan-celebrate-at-the-final-whistle Tom Maher / INPHO McCabe and O'Sullivan celebrate at the final whistle. Tom Maher / INPHO / INPHO

Down the home straight, there were half-chances at both ends: Brosnan denying Koivisto, and Korpela’s fingertips keeping a Ziu cross at bay. (Ziu had a few good interceptions in the second half, though also questionably saw yellow.)

There were some heart-in-mouth moments as the clock ran down, the four additional minutes feeling like a lifetime.

The end was nervy, just like the beginning but Ireland prevailed — Finland even putting the ball in the back of the net with seconds remaining, but it was scratched off due to a handball in the build-up.

One massive step closer. Onwards.

IRELAND: Courtney Brosnan; Jamie Finn, Diane Caldwell, Louise Quinn, Megan Connolly, Megan Campbell (Chloe Mustaki, 75); Jess Ziu (Lucy Quinn, 85), Denise O’Sullivan, Ruesha Littlejohn (Lily Agg, 40), Katie McCabe; Heather Payne.

FINLAND: Tinja-Riika Korpela; Elli Pikkujämsä (Jenny-Julia Danielsson, 73), Anna Westerlund, Natalia Kuikka, Emma Koivisto; Olga Ahtinen, Eveliina Summanen, Heidi Kollanen (Sanni Franssi, 67); Jutta Rantala, Linda Sällström.

Referee: Stéphanie Frappart (France).

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