Ireland girls hold nerve to close in on World dream
Barring an upset of monumental proportions today, Ireland's girls have done enough to top their group at the World League 2 tournament in Kuala Lumpur following a hard-fought 2-1 win over their Malaysian hosts yesterday.
Ireland play Hong Kong today, needing only a draw to achieve their first objective, namely to book a quarter-final date with the lowest-ranked team in the other section as they attempt to reach the final eliminator for next year's World Cup.
Hong Kong are the weakest team in Pool B and, yesterday, lost 3-1 to Kazakhstan, who Ireland had beaten 12-0 in their opening match on Saturday.
Yesterday's game was always expected to be Ireland's most difficult in the first phase of the tournament, as Malaysia, at 23rd, are closest to Graham Shaw's team in the world rankings added to the fact they are more used to the hot and sticky conditions in Kuala Lumpur.
And so it proved as the Asians pulled a goal back late on to set up a nervy finish after Ireland had worked hard to establish a 2-0 lead.
They got off to a dream start when Monkstown's Chloe Watkins scored a well-taken goal from open play to give them an early boost.
However, the game became fractured as players from both sides were guilty of ill-discipline and the umpires dished out a total of eight cards, four to each team, with Cork Harlequins defender Yvonne O'Byrne receiving an early yellow.
Ireland survived waves of pressure from their hosts but, in the 52nd minute, the tournament's leading scorer, Anna O'Flanagan, who had got four against Kazakhstan, made it 2-0 to ease the nerves.
Watkins then blotted her copybook when she was sent to the sin-bin in the 53rd minute and, while Ireland were down to 10 players, Hanis Onn beat Ulster goalkeeper Ayeisha McFerran from open play to cut the deficit.
However, Ireland held on for a vital win and now look set to achieve the required top-two overall finish which would see them reach the final stage of World Cup qualifying.
McFerran said: "This tournament is a stepping stone for us and now, as we expect to beat Hong Kong and top the pool, we want to kick on and win the tournament outright."
Italy have full points from the other section after two matches and could meet Ireland in Sunday's final.
Results: Pool B: Malaysia 1 Ireland 2 (C Watkins, A O'Flanagan); Kazakhstan 3 Hong Kong 1; today: Ireland v Hong Kong (10.15 UK time).