Ireland’s women lose to Spain on penalties in Olympics qualifier

Outstanding defensive display for Sean Dancer’s team but will rue missed chances with penalty corners

Ireland suffered the agony of a penalty shoot-out defeat to Spain in Valencia on Thursday afternoon in their Olympic qualifying tournament - but they still have one more chance to book their place in Paris this summer, Britain their opponents in Saturday’s third place play-off (2.30 Irish time).

It was another outstanding defensive display by Sean Dancer’s team against a side ranked eighth in the world, five places above Ireland, the game ending scoreless before Spain converted three of their penalties, to Ireland’s none, to seal their qualification.

With such a huge prize at stake, the contest was a predictably nervy one, but pressure-wise Ireland had the better of the opening two quarters, Spain’s Clara Perez the busier of the two goalkeepers.

Katie Mullan had an early chance but sent her reverse strike just wide of the left post before Perez saved a Sarah Hawkshaw effort that deflected off a defender’s stick after a scramble in the circle. Perez twice denied Mullan again in the second quarter, with Michelle Carey and Hawkshaw also going close. But Spain produced a couple of dangerous moments too, Blanca Perez’s shot just drifting past the left post before Julia Strappato fizzed the ball across the face of goal, just out of reach of outstretched Spanish sticks.

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The one big disappointment for Ireland was the failure of their penalty corner routines having won three of them, all of them breaking down without Perez being troubled. They’ll need to be a whole lot more clinical on Saturday.

The hosts came much more in to it after half-time, but they couldn’t find a way through the Irish defence in which Hannah McLoughlin, Lena Neill and Roisin Upton were once again superb. And after weathering that Spanish pressure it was Ireland who created the clearest chance of the third quarter when Niamh Carey finished off a fine run by picking out Deirdre Duke in the circle, the Old Alexandra forward turning and firing a powerful shot towards goal, Perez saving again.

The final quarter was a hearts-in-mouth 15 minutes for Ireland, Spain ramping up that pressure again and coming perilously close to stealing a winner, twice balls fired across goal just evading Spanish attackers. Matters got nervier still when they looked to have won their first penalty corner of the game seven minutes from time, but the video umpire ruled that Hawkshaw had made a clean tackle on Lucia Jimenez so the award was overturned.

With just 46 seconds left on the clock those hearts would have skipped several beats more when Belen Iglesias came within inches of getting a touch on a pass from Jimenez on the right post. Spain appealed for a corner, claiming that Hawkshaw had pushed one of their attackers in the move, but that appeal was turned down.

And so, a penalty shoot-out. Ayeisha McFerran wouldn’t have had the happiest of memories of them at the Valencia venue, the Larne woman in goal when Ireland missed out on Olympic qualification by losing to China on penalties there in 2015.

And after saving Lara Vidosa’s first effort for Spain, McFerran was out of luck this time too, Jimenez, Strappato and Maria Lopez, with a brilliant lob, all scoring past her, while Ireland had no joy at all with their efforts, Perez saving from Upton, Hawkshaw and McLoughlin.

The second bite of that qualifying cherry will, then, come on Saturday when Ireland will face Britain, bronze medallists at the last Olympics, who lost 3-2 to Belgium in Thursday’s second semi-final. The British squad is largely made up of England players, just three Scots and one Welsh player included, and they have a world ranking of seven. Beating them will be a big ask.

Spain also stand between Ireland’s men and a place in the final, the teams meeting at 11.30am on Friday morning (live on the RTÉ News channel and RTÉ Player). The same formula applies - if Ireland win, they’ll be Paris-bound; if they lose, they’ll have one more chance against either Belgium or South Korea in Sunday’s third place play-off.

Ireland: A McFerran, R Upton, H McLoughlin, E Curran, B Harper, S Hawkshaw, C Beggs, K McKee, N Carey, K Mullan, N Carroll. Subs: S McAuley, M Carey, S Torrans, E Neill, C Watkins, D Duke.

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