Dutch class puts Ireland to sword
Ireland 0 Holland 2
This was a challenging evening for Colin Bell's Ireland.
It was billed, in some quarters, as the biggest match in the history of the women's game in this country, but there was always the fear that the label would bring unreasonable expectations.
Ireland had taken a famous point from the home of the European champions Holland in November with a heroic parking of the bus, the kind of performance that it's hard to execute on more than one occasion.
And so it proved here with a focused Dutch side determined to highlight the gulf in class between the teams. The scoreline in no way reflected their dominance.
Bell had effectively sought to prepare people for that possible eventuality in his pre-match musings ahead of this World Cup qualifier. Holland have doled out thrashings to bigger and better resourced teams than Ireland.
They swatted aside England en route to Euro glory last year, and the Irish players based across the water know how good a team needs to be to do that.
Last weekend, over 30,000 fans had turned out to watch the Oranje knock seven past Northern Ireland. That context is important in evaluating this result.
The fear for any emerging sport or team when they break into the mainstream is that the increased interest coincides with a very bad day.
It's comparable with the Olympian that is roundly ignored for four years and then dismissed if they suffer a nightmare when everyone is watching, even if the outcome is not representative of the progress they have made to get there.
If this fixture brought a new audience to either watch Bell's side or pay attention to the outcome, they should not be deflated by the result - the full-time ovation for the girls in green indicated the crowd understood the bigger picture. Hordes of young fans waited around to get autographs.
That suggested Bell's team have taken a step towards consistent support as opposed to fickle fly by night commitment.
After all, 3,500 people turned out to watch them play Slovakia last Friday - a game that concluded with a dramatic success.
In truth, that victory made this something of a free shot for Bell's side. A play-off spot is the most they could hope for from a group containing the Dutch and it's the summer double header with Norway that will really define this campaign.
A record crowd of 4,047 turned up for this fixture. They need more for the Norwegian encounter on June 8.
To be in contention entering the final stretch represents a major step forward from a year ago, where this group were fighting for basic rights and respect.
It's safe to assume that this Dutch side have never faced worries about getting compensation for their day job or keeping hold of a tracksuit.
Still, there will be no progress if the analysis of any defeat is caked in platitudes that can veer into patronising territory and Bell basically acknowledged as much.
"I'm trying to get away from this mentality of 'we only lost 2-0 against the European champions and probably the best team in the world'" he said.
Ireland have to view this lesson as a template for improvement. More attacking ambition will be required when Norway come to town, and sharper application in all aspects of the game from the first whistle. Bell cited conditioning issues too.
"We have to get our players much fitter, especially the home-based players," he said."You can't be training three times a week, you have to be training four or five times a week."
The tone was set from the opening exchanges with Holland comfortable in possession and Ireland set up to defend with five at the back and four midfielders tucked in close to them.
It meant that when lone attacker Leanne Kiernan got on the ball, she was some distance from the final third. Superhuman individual efforts were required to really advance into opposition territory. Denise O'Sullivan tried hard to do so as the most advanced central midfielder
Katie McCabe succeeded with an early break to the edge of the box that drew a free-kick, yet that was about as good as it got for the first half. Holland were able to function with two centre-halves and the full-backs pushed forward to support what was effectively a four-woman front line.
Ireland worked hard, yet their plan was basically about avoiding defensive mistakes and hoping for the best. When a mistake happened, it was punished with McCabe poor in possession and a Dutch cross punishing the error with Lineth Beerensteyn heading home.
Kiernan did show she was capable of posing problems if given decent service in dangerous areas. But her chances were few and far between whereas her Dutch counterparts were given ample opportunity to shine.
Bayern Munich's Beerensteyn even earned admiration from the natives for one run where she mixed strength and skill to bamboozle green shirts.
Regrettably for Bell's side, the second goal - which removed any lingering intrigue about the outcome - came out of nothing with Diane Caldwell adjudged to have pulled back Danielle van de Donk as she chased a hopeful ball into the box.
It seemed harsh, but Sherida Spitse made no mistake from the spot.
There remained a sense of damage limitation about the Irish approach with goal difference important in the race for the second place, although Bell did bring Friday's hero Amber Barrett in after half-time to try and support Kiernan.
Yet the better Irish moments were brave blocks and quality saves from Marie Hourihan who erased the memory of her howler against Slovakia with a superb stop to push a Dominique Janssen free onto the crossbar.
She bettered that after another Dutch counter pierced the Irish rearguard as the game ticked into the final 15 minutes. The excellent Danielle van de Donk will be mystified that she came away from this trip without a goal.
Her team-mates were content enough with the collective haul, though, and passed their way through the final quarter without breaking down the Irish wall.
"It was always going to come down to these games against Norway," said Bell, "We are going to have to work even harder than up to now."
IRELAND - M Hourihan (Manchester City); S Perry-Campbell (Brighton), L Quinn (Arsenal), N Fahey (Bordeaux), D Caldwell (SC Sand), K Duggan (Peamount Utd); M Connolly (Florida State), A Boyle-Carr (Sion Swifts) , K McCabe (Arsenal); D O'Sullivan (North Carolina Courage); L Kiernan (Shelbourne). Subs: A Barrett (Peamount) for Boyle-Carr (45), R Littlejohn (Celtic) for Connolly (73).
HOLLAND - S van Veenendaal (Arsenal); R Jansen (Twente), S van der Gragt (Ajax), D Janssen (Arsenal), S Worm (Everton); J Groenen (Frankfurt), S Spitse (Valarenga); S van de Sanden (Lyon), D van de Donk (Arsenal), L Beerensteyn (Bayern Munich), L Martens (Barcelona). Subs: J Roord (Bayern Munich) for Van de Sanden (69).
REF - S Frappart (France)
Who is your sportstar of the year?
Vote in the Irish Independent Sport Star Awards and you could win the ultimate sports prize.
Prizes include, a trip to Old Trafford to watch Man United take on Liverpool in the Premier League, tickets to Ireland's home games in the Six Nations, All Ireland football and hurling final tickets and much more.