Montenegro 0 Ireland 3
Billed as a game behind closed doors, there were more doors for Ireland to navigate inside the Petrovac Stadium than on the perimeter for fans to breach.
Stern Montenegrin resistance restricted Ireland to a solitary set-piece goal before the effects of losing a player to a red card cost them with two more in the final seven minutes.
Locals admitted the restriction made very little difference to the turnout at this European qualifier. A mere 50 diehards showed up for their last home game against Greece in November and there were about the same number perched outside the exposed venue peeking over the railings.
Since the break-up of Yugoslavia, the Balkan counties that emerged very much regard their females as the poor relation of football growth. That syndrome likewise applied in Ireland until a landmark uprising from the players.
Next month marks the third anniversary since the group of players felt compelled to threaten strike action to attain basic rights.
John Delaney, whose underlings preached prestige over welfare in their dealings with the players until their hand was forced, was pointed in his declaration about the team ending their qualification duck.
They duly soared, delivering a respectable World Cup campaign last time out despite being grouped with two of Europe’s powerhouses of Norway and Holland. One point claimed from 12 in those duels explained their downfall.
All of the players, bar captain Emma Byrne, are involved in this tilt which is gearing up for a successful conclusion.
Never mind that Ireland sped to top spot in the pool following yesterday’s completed mission. All that matters is they occupy either first or second slot come September 22 after the final qualifier against Germany.
Not being considered second class, or even fifth class as their representative Stuart Gilhooly contended three years ago, is helping them get there.
So too did the order of the fixtures. Gathering a head of steam by leaving the three most difficult fixtures till the run-in only counted if they didn’t slip up.
Only the concession of a late equaliser in Greece last November amounted to a blip yet beating second seeds Ukraine a month earlier more than compensated.
Although Ireland’s destiny is within their own grasp, more likely to seal the runner-up finish is the Ukrainians dropping points. If either Montenegro or Greece don’t do Ireland a favour in Ukraine’s double-header, then Vera Pauw’s side can inflict the last rites themselves in June when they travel to Lviv. “That is the key match of the campaign,” noted Pauw.
Before that trek, coronavirus constrictions permitting, Ireland have a free hit against Germany on April 11. For all the strides made by the Girls in Green, their hosts in Munster operate on a higher level.
It will take similar fortitude and luck to that enjoyed 18 months ago when holding European champions Holland scoreless for the shock of the campaign to materialise.
Pauw is unlikely to adopt the offensive plan on view in Petrovac yesterday. Switching to three at the back was meant to facilitate an attacking approach but twice in the opening 10 minutes the visitors were caught wide open. Neither Jelena Karflcic nor Armisa Kuc could profit for a side without a goal in their four qualifiers.
“The three of us had to sort it out,” admitted Louise Quinn afterwards. “It was just a case of deciding which of us pressed and who stayed behind.”
Once Ireland forged ahead on 12 minutes, there was no way back for the limited hosts. Montenegro probably studied Diane Caldwell’s winner against Greece last Thursday during their preparation but they were helpless to prevent a replica unlocking them.
Once again, two arms in the air preceded Katie McCabe launching a free-kick to the far post where her Arsenal team-mate towered high to square a header for her defensive partner to nod over the line. Denise O’Sullivan went close to adding a second towards the end of a scrappy first half, striking the post with a snapshot, while Rianna Jarrett saw her effort cleared off the line shortly after the restart.
The eerie setting and bone-dry pitch didn’t aid Ireland’s determination to add a second to avoid any late drama. Constant fouling by the home side was another challenge and they lost Darija Djukic on 65 minutes for a second yellow card in the space of 12 minutes.
That scuppered any faint hopes of a comeback and Ireland took advantage. McCabe had been off-target with a free in the first half but was more accurate with a low arrowed one from 25 yards to add the second.
Neat footwork from Jarrett then created space for O’Sullivan to grab a deserved goal with a shot into the roof of the net from eight yards.
MONTENEGRO – I Cabarkapa; A Popovic, M Saranovic, H Bozic, D Djukic; S Bulatovic; A Kuc (J Vujadinovic 88), J Karflcic, J Djokovic, N Stanovic (A Toskovic 73); M Desic.
IRELAND – C Brosnan; D Caldwell, L Quinn, H Scott; A O’Gorman, N Fahey, D O’Sullivan; R Littlejohn, K McCabe; R Jarrett (A Barrett 88), C Shine (K Carusa 58).
Ref – M Marotta (Italy)