Penalty pain dents Irish hockey's Olympic dream
Ireland 1 - China 1
Ireland's chances of competing in an Olympic Games for the first time are hanging by a thread after an agonising penalty shoot-out defeat by China in the quarter-finals of the World League 3 tournament in Valencia yesterday.
Victory over the Asians would have been enough for the Irish to book a ticket to Rio 2016, but now Darren Smith's team will probably have to win their last two games to qualify, starting with a clash with the United States tomorrow.
While only the top three finishers are officially guaranteed qualification for Brazil, the fourth, fifth and sixth placed teams could still earn a place at the Olympics - depending on the outcome of the various continental tournaments.
Just earlier in the week, Ireland scored their first ever victory over the Americans, but it's remains to be seen whether they can repeat the feat after such a devastating blow to the players' morale yesterday. Some wept openly while others fought back the tears and tried to console their team mates after being denied the win they needed over a side ranked seventh in the world in such cruel circumstances.
"The players put their heart and soul into it and I am bitterly disappointed for them - to lose in a penalty shoot-out is devastating." said Smith.
"It was an even game and they took their chance in the shoot-out but it's desperately disappointing."
It was a match of high drama and there was no shortage of controversy - even in the shoot-out when Nikki Evans had a chance to win it with the scores tied at 3-3 and the last penalty of the first phase to come.
The Chinese keeper clattered into the UCD striker, taking stick and ball and, after Evans appealed to the umpire for a foul, she consulted the TMO.
The third official could have awarded a penalty stroke - a less difficult option for a striker than the one-on-one ice-hockey style shots - but she was undecided and merely ordered a re-take which was saved.
Pegasus goalkeeper Ayeisha McFerran had come off the bench due to her expertise in penalty deciders which had helped her club and country win crucial games earlier in the year.
She did make three superb saves, including one in sudden-death but, on this occasion, it was the strikers who couldn't take advantage and now Ireland have it all to do if they are to progress to Rio.
Earlier, in the game itself, Megan Frazer thought she had scored to make it 2-1 with five minutes left when she drove in a penalty corner.
But after furious protests from the Chinese players, the umpire 'went upstairs' and, having initially signalled a goal, reversed her decision, correctly as it turned out as the ball had struck an Irish foot in the build-up.
Ireland had trailed to a fifth minute China goal scored by Xiaoxue Zhang, who collected an overhead pass which eluded two defenders before beating Irish keeper Emma Gray at her near post.
The Chinese, who had failed to score in their previous three matches in Valencia, seemed content to sit back and defend their lead and they resorted to time-wasting tactics as early as the first half when they had a player sin-binned for delaying tactics.
Ireland forced three penalty corners in quick succession without reward and then Katie Mullan's shot from the edge of the circle was saved by the keeper. But the breakthrough eventually arrived in the 42nd minute when Chloe Watkins latched on to a pass from Kate Dillon and blasted home the equaliser.
Unfortunately, Ireland's set-piece routine wasn't up to scratch and they squandered a total of 15 - most top international sides these days expect a conversion ratio of one in three or four.
"I thought over the match we had created enough but they defended the corners really well and we weren't as clinical as we would have liked," Smith said.
"From our perspective, we need to make sure we are determined and focused, defend well and tackle well and give ourselves a chance of going to Rio. There might be a little bit of hurt for the next while but we hope that clears and we get the girls back into it."
Smith now has a massive task on his hands to lift the players' spirits ahead of the final two games of the tournament.
"We'll get some metal up our back and see if we can get a fifth or sixth spot when we line up on Saturday," added the New Zealander.
"All we wanted was to get to Rio, it's the biggest carrot in our sport, the women's team has never gone. We know to get there would be huge - not just for the girls, but for the hockey public and the nation of Ireland and we want to do that for our country."
Quarter-final results: Ireland 1 China 1 (China won 4-3 on pens); Argentina 3 USA 0; Great Britain 2 South Africa 0; Spain 2 Germany 2 (Germany won 3-2 on pens). Saturday's fixtures: 5th-8th place play-offs: Ireland v USA (10.30am); Spain v South Africa (1pm); semi-finals: Argentina v China (3.30pm); Great Britain v Germany (6pm).