Ireland left with work to do as McCabe strike earns a point against Slovakia

Republic of Ireland 1 Slovakia 1

In Arctic conditions, the Ireland of Helsinki took too long to warm up.

The flatness of this performance almost crushed hopes of reaching the 2023 World Cup. Still, the campaign took a sizable dent, and only avoided being ruined by the usual suspects – Megan Connolly, Heather Payne, Denise O’Sullivan and the unflappable Katie McCabe – combining for a precious equaliser.

McCabe’s finish on 65 minutes somehow escaped four out-stretched Slovak legs as the Arsenal star willed her shot into the far corner.

But Ireland were blessed to escape with a point.

Last month’s 2-1 victory in Finland, who lost on Tuesday night to Sweden, was no mirage but the trick of qualifying for a major tournament has always been the same; beat the teams in and around your standard and steal points on the road.

There is no way of reaching the big show Down Under without an end product and for all Payne’s athletic prowess, the lone striker barely got a sight of goal as the system let her down.

Taking the opening half hour in isolation, Slovak coach Peter Kopún had Vera Pauw’s tactical number. Ireland’s attacking strategy, like all FAI teams since Chelsea’s Anthony Barry started double jobbing, are overly dependent on wing backs not having to be constantly backpedalling.

By pressing high up the pitch with five players, Slovakia turned McCabe into a left back and the Irish blade was blunted as a result. This also asked far too much of O’Sullivan, Lucy Quinn and Payne, who were never properly connected.

This is a problem that is supposed to rear its head when Pauw’s team face Sweden next March, not a country ranked 12 spots below them in the Fifa charts.

But that was always going to be the test on this freezing night; unlocking a team that invited Ireland onto them.

It started with a flash of O’Sullivan wizardry as the Cork midfielder trapped an impossible pass before skipping beyond two tackles before she was isolated and dispossessed.

Lucy Quinn made a hugely promising debut against Australia recently but the Birmingham City forward has not been able to impose herself on this qualification campaign like many feel Leanne Kiernan might still do.

The goalscoring Liverpool attacker was ruled out of this international window with injury and, along with teenager Ellen Molloy, might eventually penetrate Pauw’s rigid selection process.

Slovakia’s Martina Surnovska celebrates scoring the opener. Photo: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
Slovakia’s Martina Surnovska celebrates scoring the opener. Photo: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho

Quinn was in possession for Ireland’s best opportunities of the first half, flicking an adventurous Áine O’Gorman ball into the hands of Maria Korenciova on 31 minutes.

Soon after, her cross failed to clear Patricia Fischerova with Jamie Finn unmarked in the middle and ready to finish. From the resulting corner, lofted high to the back post by McCabe, Louise Quinn could not generate enough power and Korenciova, again, easily saved.

In between these sparks of dominance, Dominika Skorvánková forced Courtney Brosnan into a routine stop.

Lucy Quinn, again, created a third Irish half chance before the break but Payne missed the target.

Ninety seconds into the second half Slovakia caught McCabe playing more wing than back, which Pauw indicated afterwards was an individual error by the captain. But a calamity of mistakes allowed Ludmila Mat’avková pop a cross to the back post that Slavia Prague’s Martina Surnovská tapped into the net.

The Irish defence completely malfunctioned with Brosnan hesitating and in the end doing nothing, while Niamh Fahey lost Surnovská in a straight sprint.

This forced O’Sullivan to drive forward at every opportunity but a wave of desperation cloaked the Irish team. The first touch under pressure tells no lies. The wonder was how long before Pauw went to her favourite Plan B and lumped Louise Quinn up front.

McCabe shrugged off a foot injury to combine with Payne for a real chance but O’Sullivan’s snap shot was brilliantly blocked by Jana Vojtekova before AC Milan’s Korenciova pushed Connolly’s rasping strike around the post.

Moments later, the same Irish trio combined with Payne showing for ball, laying it off to O’Sullivan, whose diagonal run was copied by McCabe before her sliding finish brought a cacophony of high pitched screams down from the 5,154 crowd.

Ireland were level but they kept playing 3-4-3 which invited Slovakia to catch them on the break. A better team would have done so.

Brosnan made a fine save to deny Alexandra Biróová’s diving header, as Irish marking disintegrated again, but the Everton goalkeeper is prone to error and this game was no different. Her inability to control a basic rolling ball gifted sub Laura Zemberyová an open goal that Louise Quinn somehow tracked back to deny.

Ireland: Brosnan (Everton); Fahey (Liverpool), Louise Quinn (Birmingham City), McCarthy (Galway WFC); O’Gorman (Peamount United), Finn (Birmingham City), Connolly (Brighton and Hove Albion), O’Sullivan (North Carolina Courage), McCabe (Arsenal); Lucy Quinn (Birmingham City), Payne (Florida State University).

Subs: Littlejohn (Aston Villa) for O’Gorman (70), Carusa for Lucy Quinn (84).

Slovakia: Korenciova (AC Milan); Horváthová (Czarni Sosnowiec), Bíróová (SKN St Polten), Fischerova (Czarni Sosnowiec), Bartovicová (Slavia Prague), Vojteková (SC Freiburg); Skorvánková (Montpellier HSC), Mikolajová (SKN St Polten), Surnovská (Slavia Prague), Hmírová (Apollon); Mat’avková (Club Brugge).

Subs: Zemberyová (Balzers) for Surnovská (65), Lemesova (Wcker Innsbruck) for Biroova (76), Panakova (Spartak Myjava) for Mat’avková (87).

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