On the brink of history: Irish face Indian ambush in bid to make more World Cup semis
Two teams exploring new territory collide today as Ireland take on India at the Women's World Cup in London.
Whichever nation wins the quarter-final at Lee Valley will, for the first time in the astroturf era, earn the right to compete for a World Cup medal at the weekend.
The game has been brought forward to 6pm, with the organisers giving the Netherlands and hosts England the prime slot of 8.15pm. But for the squad coached by Graham Shaw, this is the biggest fixture that they have ever contested by far, a landmark in Irish women's sport.
The nation's men had bragging rights earned by qualifying for the Brazil Olympics, where they finished outside of the top eight. But now the ladies have an opportunity to far eclipse that as they seek to make the most of their wonderful start to the tournament.
Shaw has managed to put a smile on the faces of his squad as well as imposing a coherent style into their play. Their two victories to date, against the United States and India, have been based on scoring first and then defending a lead with an impressive sense of common purpose.
They have also benefited from the emergence of Ayeisha McFerran as the goalkeeper of the tournament so far as the Irish won Pool B with a match to spare.
McFerran returned from a stint with the University of Louisville better than ever, making her saves look easy in this event. The most vital block of the lot was the big right foot she put in the way of a late shot by veteran Indian forward Rani Rampal which denied their opponents a point.
The vagaries of the draw mean that today's knockout tie is a repeat fixture against the same opposition. After finishing third in the pool, the side from the sub-continent have had the extra exertions of Tuesday's 'cross-over' match against Italy.
They used that game, which they won 3-0, to re-discover the scoring touch which was missing when McFerran stood in their way.
India are rated six spots above Ireland in the world rankings but they have never had the better of the Irish in a major tournament.
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Coach Shaw reports a clean bill of health among his squad of 18 and captain Katie Mullan expects no change in the winning formula.
"We will do exactly what we have been doing," said the UCD clubwoman as the possibility of a semi-final against either Germany or Spain beckons.
Whatever the outcome, the Irish enter the fray this evening guaranteed their highest ever finish at a World Cup having struggled to make an impression in four previous appearances.
India have a top-four finish on their past record but that was back in 1974, when the sport was played on real grass rather than on the current synthetic pitches.
"We are not getting ahead of ourselves," commented the coach, playing down talk of medals. "We are all just focused on putting in a performance that we can be proud of."
One subplot to the game is Anna O'Flanagan's pursuit of Ireland's all-time goal-getter's record. The Dutch-based striker is currently just one goal shy of the 65 racked up by Lynsey McVicker after her inspirational winner in the first game against today's opposition.
Deirdre Duke, who knocked in two against the United States, is also clearly in good shooting form, with Nikki Evans itching to join them on the scoresheet. O'Flanagan and Evans are among four of the Green Army who have been soldiering on the club front in Europe, along with Megan Frazer and Chloe Watkins.
Their experience will be needed today if a great start to this World Cup is to be converted into a stellar finish.
- Ireland v India, Live RTÉ2, 6.0