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Ireland close in on keeping place at Europe's top table

Ireland 0 Spain 1

By Graham Hamilton

Ireland must avoid defeat against Austria tomorrow morning (10am) in Amsterdam to ensure they finish sixth in the EuroHockey championships and avoid relegation from the top flight.

Craig Fulton's side lost 1-0 to Spain yesterday in the second of their 5th-8th play-off games, but a draw at the worst against the Austrians should see them attain a top six finish and make it four major tournaments in a row that they have either equalled or bettered their world ranking.

That might be little comfort for the Green Machine as they felt they could have reached the competition's semi-finals but for a narrow defeat against England on Wednesday, and then could have finished fifth but suffered another narrow defeat against Spain yesterday.

On both occasions they created sufficient chances to earn positive results, particularly against Spain when they had around a dozen attempts on goal, but failed to convert any.

Yes, the absence of Banbridge's Eugene Magee and Johnny McKee, both who haven't recovered from bad injuries received at the World League 3 tournament in Johannesburg, robbed them of considerable goal power upfront.

But although the young players drafted in have performed well, particularly earlier in the competition, their inexperience showed against these two vastly experienced teams, with some of the decision making in and around the circle found wanting.

"It was a tight match but I thought we created enough chances to win, especially in the second half," insisted coach Fulton.

"We're doing the right things, we just need some more confidence and composure in front of goal. It'll come."

Spain's goal came after just two minutes when Enrique Gonzalez clipped the ball over advancing goalkeeper David Harte, and thereafter they were content to sit deep, hold on to the ball - just as they did in their slender 2-1 win over the Irish at the World qualifiers last month - and hit the Irish on the break.

Spain did win six penalty corners, which the Irish defence dealt with comfortably, but most of the action was at the other end where Quico Cortes was clearly the busier goalkeeper.

It was a catalogue of opportunities for the Irish - first Matthew Nelson had a shot deflected wide and then Cortes blocked Alan Sothern's effort from close range.

Shane O'Donoghue had two penalty corners saved and another shot whistle wide, and early in the second half Neal Glassey had a shot deflected round the post while Lee Cole put one wide.

Cortes again denied Sothern following a quick break, but despite John Jackson, Matthew Bell, Sean Murray and Conor Harte in particular getting the ball into the circle, no-one could apply the finishing touch.

Murray was again denied and then Glassey squandered a glorious chance when he fired high and wide from the rebound with Sothern awaiting a low pass to the unguarded far post.

Even when the Irish won a penalty corner with 36 seconds to go, an attempted variation instead of a drag-flick was wasted, so it's all down to the Austria game where they must avoid defeat tomorrow.

The Irish women are in a similar position; a point against Spain this morning (11.30am) would ensure they finish above the two relegation places.

Belfast Telegraph

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