Northern Ireland see Women’s Euro 2022 hopes all but ended as Austria earn first points

·3-min read
Austria got points on the board with a routine win over Northern Ireland  (AFP via Getty Images)
Austria got points on the board with a routine win over Northern Ireland (AFP via Getty Images)

Such is the cut-throat nature of major tournament football, at least in this refreshingly unbloated format, that just six days into these European Championships, Northern Ireland and Austria arrived at St. Mary’s near enough in do-or-die mode.

After opening round defeats to Norway and England, respectively, both knew another would almost certainly be fatal, the kind of ruthlessness lost from the men’s Euros when it expanded to 24 teams and brought the best third-place farce into play.

After a 2-0 win it is Austria who are alive in Group A, while Northern Ireland could even have their surely now inevitable exit confirmed by nightfall on the opening day of the second round of fixtures.

It has been a harsh but not unexpected lesson on tournament debut for a side who stunned Europe by even qualifying, the lowest ranked team at Euro 2022 this summer, with numerous part-time players in their ranks, representing a country that, only a couple of decades ago, was effectively without a women’s team.

Julie Nelson’s consolation in the Norway thrashing here in Southampton had already delivered a moment to remember last Thursday, an historic goal against a team containing some of the planet’s finest players.

Against an Austria side that had only escaped Belfast with a point thanks to a stoppage time equaliser when the pair met in World Cup qualifying last October, there was reasonable hope for more.

A strong second-half showing inspired the nagging regret that, had they been more assertive prior to that, they may well have got it, too. But as against the Norwegians, Northern Ireland, for all they were surrendering a class edge, were ultimately masters of their own downfall, as poor defending gave Austria their two best openings in the first-half.

The first was taken, when Sarah Puntigam’s low free-kick on 19 minutes took a nick off the wall and no one in white reacted, leaving Katharina Schiechtl in splendid isolation inside the six-yard box to help home.

Only thanks to the brilliance of Jacqueline Burns did the second not result in a deserved doubling of the lead, the ‘keeper making amends for her own dreadful clearance to the feet of Barbara Dunst as she raced back to tip the Eintracht Frankfurt midfielder’s strike onto the bar.

After his bizarre hint at Nordic collusion, there was no refereeing conspiracy for Kenny Shiels to point to here, on the safe assumption that Emikar Calderas Barrera’s homeland of Venezuela is sufficiently far removed from Austria as not to arouse suspicion.

Northern Ireland are facing a quick-fire exit from the tournament (Getty Images)
Northern Ireland are facing a quick-fire exit from the tournament (Getty Images)

Instead, the Northern Ireland boss must have been questioning what was, given the circumstances, his own overly defensive approach, a ploy to use a pair of split wide forwards leaving both isolated and neither of much use in relieving the pressure on those behind.

There was a marked shift after the interval: more ambition, more belief. Captain Marissa Callaghan, back in the starting lineup after losing her race to be fit to lead her country out in the opener, was given licence to push higher through the middle and by the second of two water breaks taken out of necessity in sweltering conditions, it was Shiels’ side on top.

To say it came at a poor time for Northern Ireland would be a stretch, since the fitness advantage undoubtedly lay with the opposition, but it did seem to stunt precious momentum, with Katharina Naschenweng on as a substitute and able to slide under Burns to clinch victory two minutes from time.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting