Path to World Cup becomes clearer with victory in Slovakia enough to put Ireland into playoff final

Connolly, Littlejohn, Fahey injuries and Finn suspension puts emphasis on squad depth for tricky Slovakia test

England inadvertently did the Republic of Ireland a favour on Saturday.

The European champions’ 2-0 defeat of Austria means an Irish victory in Slovakia on Tuesday guarantees Vera Pauw’s side a top-three seeding come Friday’s World Cup playoff draw.

It means a one-off win in October, rather than needing to beat two European nations, could secure safe passage to the tournament in Australia and New Zealand next summer.

Unfortunately, Fifa have thrown a potential spanner in the works as the last Uefa qualifier must survive an Inter-confederation tournament in New Zealand in February. This could well be Ireland’s fate but none of any of the competing countries look capable of causing an upset. Chinese Taipai/Taiwan, ranked 38 by Fifa, are the toughest proposition.

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Ireland are currently ranked fourth of nine European runners-up but they are set to pass third-placed Belgium if they win the final game in Group A.

“I have looked at it a few times and tried to get my head around it,” said Heather Payne. “I have an idea of how it works but I know that beating Slovakia will be important to get a good ranking and help with the draw in the playoffs so we have a better chance.

“Slovakia came here and drew 1-1 last year so they are a tough side to play. They’ve taken points off Finland and put it up to Sweden so it won’t be easy but we have grown since we last played Slovakia [in November 2021], and we are getting better with each game and hopefully we push on and get the win.”

Victory in the holiday resort of Senec, just outside Bratislava, will have to be achieved without Niamh Fahey (groin), Ruesha Littlejohn (foot), Megan Connolly (ribs) and the suspended Jamie Finn.

Littlejohn and Connolly were injured during Thursday’s 1-0 win over Finland in Tallaght, a result that required a video session at half-time to counteract the Finns’ tactical superiority.

The injuries force a reimagining of midfield but Lily Agg’s goal and general impact, when replacing Littlejohn, is sure to be rewarded with a starting role for the London City Lioness.

The Slovaks were unlucky not to beat Ireland last year, when Katie McCabe’s equaliser and Louise Quinn’s goal-line clearance kept qualification for a first major tournament on track, despite the worst performance of the campaign.

Tactically, not unlike Thursday’s nervy opening exchanges, the Irish players struggled when Pauw’s wing back system came under sustained pressure and they were effectively forced to adopt a back five.

“We were under pressure,” said Pauw. “They did not create many chances but every ball could fall because they were physically strong but after we made the change and the players trusted the change we could play an equal game.

“We were a bit lucky that we were not 1-0 down at that moment. Ruesha and Denise [O’Sullivan] had to play behind one another which was difficult because they have never done that and didn’t really trust it, I think.”

It could have been 3-0 at half-time.

“Could have, but it wasn’t.”

Finland’s recently promoted under-17 coach Marko Saloranta is credited with creating confusion in an experienced Ireland midfield.

“We had clips at half-time that that was the solution,” Pauw explained. “I said to them: ‘It’s logical, no one blames you, because we don’t’ have the experience yet in these type of games.’ We have had that several times at half-time, they gave us so much trust and we give them so much trust.

“We are not there yet, we are growing and growing and growing . . .We have absolute will to sacrifice, even health, they went into tackles to sacrifice themselves. You don’t see that often.”

Payne concurs as both management and squad have clearly evolved during the past 12 months.

“Vera really believes in our squad, from the get-go that’s been the thing, like the ‘Outbelieve’ slogan, she really trusts that we have quality players, it’s our passion too that drives us over the line and that’s been key from the beginning.”

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent