Soccer

Northern Ireland Women aiming to end Republic's perfect records

NI's Caragh Hamilton takes on Republic captain Katie McCabe at the Aviva.
NI's Caragh Hamilton takes on Republic captain Katie McCabe at the Aviva. NI's Caragh Hamilton takes on Republic captain Katie McCabe at the Aviva.

Uefa Women’s Nations League B, Group 1: Northern Ireland v Republic of Ireland (Windsor Park, Tuesday 6pm)

THERE’S no doubt this is an historic occasion for women’s soccer here – but there’s quite a degree of doubt over Northern Ireland’s ability to make history.

The hosts will have to record their first ever senior success against their neighbours to be certain of finishing second and earning a play-off for the chance to progress to Nations League A.

  • Eileen Gleeson and Ireland hitting all the right notes
  • Republic of Ireland outclass Northern Ireland in Nations League opener
  • Simone Magill hits 24th international goal as Northern Ireland cruise home in Albania

There is a clear gap to bridge: the Republic are at 24 in the world rankings, NI at 47th – 16th and 27th respectively among Uefa teams.

Even avoiding defeat against the Republic of Ireland for the first time might not be enough, if Hungary record a convincing home win over Albania, as the Magyars could then overtake NI on goal difference.

Tanya Oxtoby’s team boosted themselves in that regard with their 4-0 win away to Albania on Friday. The Balkan side did hold Hungary to a 1-1 draw in their group opener in Skhoder but it may be a case of considering the margin of victory in Budapest as the Albanians have lost all their outings since then.

The prize in that promotion play-off would pit NI or Hungary against one of the third-placed teams from Group A – currently Belgium, Norway, Iceland, or Italy.

Yet the focus must be fully on the Republic of Ireland, who have dominated this group so far.

After all the comment and controversy both during and after their debut World Cup campaign, and the fall-out from the departure of previous boss Vera Pauw, they’ve done their talking on the pitches.

Luxy Quinn netted the Republic's first goal in a 3-0 win over Northern Ireland at the Aviva.
Luxy Quinn netted the Republic's first goal in a 3-0 win over Northern Ireland at the Aviva. Luxy Quinn netted the Republic's first goal in a 3-0 win over Northern Ireland at the Aviva.

Interim boss Eileen Gleeson has very much steadied the ship, with the Republic sailing serenely to the highest level of the Nations League.

The tone for their campaign was set by their confident, comfortable 3-0 win over NI in Dublin back in September, followed up by a 4-0 win in Hungary and a 5-1 home success over Albania.

The faint hope for the hosts is the thought that their visitors’ form has been declining since that extremely strong start. The Republic only won 1-0 away to Albania, then needed an own goal to see off Hungary by the same score-line on Friday evening.

NI did at least get their scoring going with that trouncing in Tirana, but the group leaders (and winners) have still only conceded one goal so far, in that 5-1 thumping of Albania at Tallaght Stadium.

NI boss Oxtoby has, understandably, experimented with personnel during this campaign, getting to know her group.

NI's Danielle Maxwell celebrates her equaliser against Hungary with Marissa Callaghan (8).
NI's Danielle Maxwell celebrates her equaliser against Hungary with Marissa Callaghan (8). NI's Danielle Maxwell celebrates her equaliser against Hungary with Marissa Callaghan (8).

The team has taken on a more settled, largely familiar look, though. Danielle Maxwell has been the breakthrough player, pushing herself forward in several senses, the Glentoran attacking midfielder scoring an equaliser at home to Hungary and then netting again away to Albania.

Striker Simone Magill seems to be returning to form and fitness, both tending to take time to come back after a cruciate knee ligament injury such as she sustained at the Euros. The Aston Villa attacker score twice in Tirana and will be feeling more confident about scoring on home soil.

Maddy Harvey-Clifford of Crusaders Strikers made her senior debut in goals, but despite her clean sheet the more experienced Shannon Turner may return to the number one jersey.

The Republic were boosted by having Ruesha Littlejohn back in midfield for the first time since the World Cup and the 33-year-old is keen for another run-out – and a sixth victory, saying:

“It's exciting, I'm really looking forward to it. It's been a few years since I've taken part in a game like this.

"We're looking to get another three points, we want to win. We know it's going to be a tough game. They're going to want to take points off us on their home patch in their own national stadium too, so it's going to be a massive game, but we're looking forward to it."

NI’s Rebecca Holloway and Lucy Quinn of the Republic happen to be a couple, but from first to last whistle there’ll be little love lost on the pitch.

Local pride will ensure that the girls in (presumably) white will not only want to preserve their 100 per cent record in the group but also in competitive action against their rivals from the north.

Oxtoby certainly isn’t feeling the visitors will present any less of a test, insisting: “It is going to be a new challenge for us to take the [Albania] performance and be able to apply that against a team that is in form.”

NI’s greater need, and a large, vocal home support, might drive them on to securing a share of the spoils, but the Republic’s superior quality will make achieving even that a difficult ask.