The European Championships qualifying campaign of the Irish women's soccer team has been so hugely heartening it seems slightly churlish to point out that the hard part hasn't even started yet.
A casual glance at the Group I table might suggest that, at the very worst, Ireland are assured of a place in the qualification play-offs and that there's even a possibility of direct qualification by winning the group or being one of the three best runners-up.
But the fact that Ireland lead Germany by a point at the top of the table means little. Germany are going to win the group and Ireland's ambitions in the two matches against them, away in April and home in September, will probably be limited to keeping the score down.
If you think that sounds unduly pessimistic, consider the relative records of both teams against the other sides in the group. Ireland's 3-2 win over Ukraine was probably their best performance so far, but Germany beat the second seeds 8-0 both home and away.
We took four points out of six against Greece, scoring two and conceding one. Germany beat them 5-0 away. Ireland's two wins against Montenegro were by an aggregate score of 5-0, Germany won 10-0 in the only meeting between the sides. Damage limitation will be the name of the game when Ireland visit Munster (the Westphalian city rather than the Irish province) next month.
But Ireland do look to be in a very healthy position compared to main rivals for the runners-up spot, Ukraine, with 13 points from five games as opposed to their zero from three. But here again the bare stats are misleading. Ukraine started with their three most difficult games, two against Germany and one away to Ireland. Vera Pouw's team, on the other hand, must finish with their three toughest assignments, two against Germany and one away to Ukraine.
It is the latter game on June 5 which will most likely decide Ireland's fate. A win there would give the team a chance of direct qualification as runners-up, though it's worth noting that of the teams currently in the second-place slots, Switzerland, Denmark, Iceland and Scotland still have a 100 per cent record. The injury-time goal which cost Ireland victory in Greece could yet prove significant.
So let's not get carried away by what this supremely honest team has achieved. They've put themselves in a great position to quality for a first ever European Championships but, as the young people like to say these days, shit's about to get real. They can do this but it won't be easy.
Sunday Indo Sport