Northern Ireland women finish strongly for first Windsor win
Women's World Cup 2023 European qualifying group D: Northern Ireland 4-0 Latvia
AFTER years of being away from Windsor Park this was a victory made by Red Army favourites, albeit to the delight of a much-changed 'Green and White Army'.
That familiar chant - in unfamiliar high-pitched tones - greeted the decisive first and second goals, both scored and made by Cliftonville Ladies, with the third also coming from one of Solitude's finest.
Louise McDaniel opened her international account early in the second half with captain for the night Kirsty McGuinness then marking her 50th cap with her 10th goal for Northern Ireland - both of them following good work by their Solitude colleague Marissa Callaghan.
Having been pushed forward in a tactical re-shuffle, the usual captain then grabbed a goal herself, forcing in a delightful cross from Demi Vance, before Liverpool's Rachel Furness netted a penalty after Gergeleziu handled a shot from - who else? - Callaghan.
The opening goal was greeted with particular delight, not only because it ended Latvia's resistance but also as it marked the first scored by the hosts in a competitive international at Windsor Park.
On their return to this ground after a nine-year gap the hosts seemed somewhat overawed by the setting, at least in a poor quality first half.
However, those second half goals made the occasion a memorable one for the right reasons, and rewarded those who made up a disappointingly small attendance.
What they lacked in numbers, they made up for in partisanship. The crowd was hugely supportive of everything - anything - positive that the girls in green did, as well as loudly booing any decisions given against them.
As he'd promised, manager Kenny Shiels rang the changes, notably in defence, with only the experienced Sarah McFadden retaining her place from Friday's 4-0 win over Luxembourg. In came Laura Rafferty and Demi Vance, replacing the Rebeccas, McKenna and Holloway, but in a reversion to a back three.
With centre half Julie Nelson having to wait on her 119th cap, McDaniel was called up into midfield. The only other change was up front, where Kerry Anne Beattie led the attack instead of Emily Wilson, who'd netted the third goal in Larne.
Latvia started with the same side which began well against Austria, opening the scoring, before succumbing to an 8-1 defeat.
The hosts shaped up in a 3-1-3-3 formation, with Chloe McCarron the holding midfielder, although there was fluidity among the forward six, with Callaghan and Furness pushing forward. McGuinness and Lauren Wade also provided plenty of width, pulling out to the touchlines when play came down their flank.
However, the home approach did allow space for the dangerous Olga Sevcova to run into on the Latvian left. She threatened several times, most notably when midfielder Karlina Miksone swept the ball through the defence. Sevcova cut in and shot low, but goalkeeper Jacqui Burns saved well with her feet.
Wade was looking like the biggest threat and one run and cut-back almost ended in the net as a defender skewed her attempted clearance goalwards rather than away.
It seemed like Northern Ireland might need a mistake to help them - and might get one. The visiting keeper Vaivode had mis-handled early on and again looked nervy when she fumbled a free kick struck straight at her - and not particularly firmly - by McGuinness, but McFadden could not turn the loose ball in.
The hosts had plenty of possession but were struggling to do much with it, not helped by Latvia getting everyone behind the ball. NI's passing was patient, and becoming more accurate, with Beattie linking play well from centre-forward, but gaps were hard to find.
McFadden, dominant in defence, almost made the breakthrough, heading against the angle of bar and post from a McGuinness delivery following a free-kick routine, but McDaniel could not convert the rebound from an awkward angle close in.
However, the deadlock really should have been broken in first half injury time. McGuinness won back possession, then Rachel Furness guided a brilliant ball in behind the Latvian left-back, allowing Wade to run in on goal - but she rolled her shot wide of the far post.
McDaniel struck the ball far better minutes into the second half, lashing high to the net after a shot by Callaghan was half-blocked.
Latvia sent on a forward but to no avail. Instead, a home change prompted more goals. Rebecca McKenna came on for Beattie, but at right-back, the team switching to a back four, with Callaghan moving to the forefront of the attack.
Even so, it was from deeper in midfield that she seized on a mis-kick then slid a superb pass to McGuinness, who ran on before guiding her shot in off the right upright in the 64th minute.
It was one-way traffic from then on, and two more goals followed in a four-minute spell. First Callaghan turned in Vance's whipped centre, then when her 81st minute shot struck the hand of Gergeleziu, the referee pointed to the spot. Furness had missed a penalty on Friday, but she fired in confidently to seal an ultimately comfortable victory.
Far tougher tests will come next month, against England at Wembley and then at home to Austria, but at least Northern Ireland's women sent their supporters away with memories of a convincing win.
Northern Ireland: Burns; Rafferty (Burrows, 83), McFadden, Vance; McCarron; McDaniel, Furness (Watling, 83), Callaghan; Wade (Milligan, 71), Beattie (McKenna, 61), K McGuinness (capt.) (Maxwell, 83).
Latvia: Vaivode; Voitane, Gergeleziu, Rocane, Tumane (Garanca, 90); Miksone, Lubina (Girdza, 90); Zaicikova, Fedotova (Baliceva, 52) (Brahmane, 90), Sevcova; Senberga (Valaka, 63).
Referee: Esther Staubli (Switzerland).