Northern Ireland Women aim to keep their cool against familiar foes Austria
Euro 2022 Group A, round two: Austria v Northern Ireland (St Mary’s Stadium, Southampton, 5pm)
The pressure's high, just to stay alive
'Cause the heat is on
You can make a break, you can win or lose
That's a chance you take, when the heat's on you
KEEPING their cool as Southampton hits the high 20s - ‘scorchio’ territory, especially for an early evening kick-off - is Northern Ireland’s approach against Austria.
The advisable temperature for serving that sporting dish named ‘revenge’ may be a consideration, but everyone involved with the girls in green knows that victory is not vital tonight.
Sure, a draw would leave them needing to beat hosts England on Friday night to have any chance of reaching the quarter-finals, while defeat would end that tiny hope, but amazing progress has already been made.
Manager Kenny Shiels and his captain Marissa Callaghan made mention of playing England twice already, at Wembley and then the near sell-out at Windsor Park, plus the eight-game must-win streak which took them into this tournament.
Shiels also pointed out that this can’t be viewed as the least difficult of NI’s three Group A games:
“We always try to win, but it’d be very foolish of us to characterise Austria as a weaker team, because they most certainly are not, as you’ve seen against England. Them, Norway, and England are very much on a par. Any one of those three could go on and win the tournament.
“We will, adapt, prepare; everything we do is gauged towards getting a victory. If we don’t get a victory, we want to get at least a draw, but we won’t be thinking like that.”
A big reaction is required after the opening 4-1 loss against Norway, but Shiels’s players have done so before:
“Yeah, we are encouraged by what’s going on behind the scenes. We have to take this on now.
“People fail to understand that our last five and these next two, that’ll be seven games in a row, against number one [tier] seeds, up at the top, in the upper echelons of European football.
“It would be nice to get a first win against that. Playing in [qualifying], you’re playing against some lower seeds, so there’s a bit of respite… We won eight games in a row, which was brilliant, and qualified because of that.
“It’s the opposite now - we have to put a stop to losing. We understand where we are at and that it’s going to tough against the upper teams, like England, Austria, and Norway, we’re playing them all three times.”
Ninety years ago, Austria had the best men’s team in the world; even 90 weeks can be a long time in the fast-changing women’s game.
Austria went from (admittedly surprising) semi-finalists at the last Euros in 2017 to failing to qualify for the 2019 World Cup. To be fair, they were in a group with Spain.
They then finished second in Euros qualifying to France, earning an automatic place at this tournament as one of the three best group runners-up.
They are familiar foes to NI, having met twice in the current World Cup qualifying campaign, with the Austrians set to seal second spot behind England.
Austria looked a level above in both first halves, at Seaview and Wiener Neustadt, but NI’s displays in both second halves offer serious encouragement to Kenny Shiels’s side.
Superb goals from Lauren Wade and Demi Vance almost brought a famous victory in north Belfast, but for a late equaliser in a 2-2 draw.
That was achieved without star striker Simone Magill, whose Euros was ended by a serious knee injury sustained against Norway, and Shiels hopes his players can find an extra special effort against Austria:
“Sometimes you adapt. When we played Austria before, we lost five players, after playing England, and four of them were automatic starters - and we were absolutely brilliant that night.
“I think the girls dealt with it by giving that little bit more. After losing so many good players due to Covid on the flight we weren’t filled with confidence, but the girls did us proud that night.”
Then, in the away return in April, the visitors played poorly for most of the first hour, shipping three goals quickly in the second half, but roared back - and substitute Joely Andrews’s late strike was scant reward for their efforts.
Fitness, or lack of it, was a major factor at Seaview; the full-time training camp from January will have helped in that regard.
The pressure of a ‘must-win’ World Cup qualifier weighed heavily on NI out in Austria. This evening, they’ll aim to be cool, calm, and collect at least a point.