Ireland 2 (Nikki Symmons, Alex Speers) Azerbaijan 1 (Zhun Mammadova)
Ireland moved to the verge of survival in the A division of European competition for 2011 thanks to Alex Speers’ 64th minute goal against Azerbaijan today.
It means Ireland need just a draw in their final relegation pool game against Russia on Saturday morning (7.30am, Irish time) to survive – always stated as the primary goal from the tournament for Gene Muller.
It was a massive result for the Irish in the face of a second-half onslaught by the Azeris who had cancelled out Nikki Symmons’ 24th minute drag-flick with a stunning Zhun Mammodova shot early in the second half.
She offloaded to Speers who fed Megan Frazer in shooting position. Her strike was half-blocked but had enough pace on it for Speers to slide in ahead of goalkeeper Seda Kheyirova.
Early on, Ireland were very much the dominant force. Symmons was the threat-in-chief, firing the only three shots in anger of the first half.
Her first corner went just over but her second zipped between the lineswoman Hee-Zhung Abbasova’s legs. And the Loreto woman nearly made it 2-0 with a vicious aerial soon after, clearing the bar by a matter of inches.
Symmons would later pick up a second yellow card of the tournament – this time for not retreating at an auto-pass with two minutes to go – and so faces suspension for Saturday’s game with Russia.
Azerbaijan faced a similar situation today, playing with only four on the bench as Mi Kyung Aliyeva was suspended based on video evidence from a group game against England for a violent confrontation.
The article, entitled “They think they can buy a World Cup place”, explains how team talks are conducted in three different languages among other claims that have caused waves in the Dutch press pack, with Dikmoet effectively signing off on his time with the Azerbaijan team.
Those claims aside, Azerbaijan blended well after the interval to dominate proceedings and could have levelled long before Mammodova’s strike.
But the Irish stood firm and took their chance when it came for a vital victory.
Gene Muller admitted his relief at now being in pole-position to avoid relegation: “I’m very relieved, it was a different kind of pressure; playing for survival rather than going for a World Cup.
"They’re an extremely difficult opponent to prepare against, they’re technically very good, very direct and pose a threat from anywhere because of their long hits, making them always two or three seconds away from scoring.
“I was delighted with our defensive effort. It was an enormous game for us, given the context and the weight of the occasion. Obviously, I’m just delighted and proud of the girls.”
Looking forward to the Russian challenge, he does not buy anything into June’s 4-0 victory in Kazan: “It has no relevance, whatsoever. That was Russia’s first international match in a long time. Since then, they’ve played ten times so it will make no difference for them. We must guard against complacency.
Subs: C Sargent, C McKean, A Speers, L Colvin, M Frazer
Subs: E Muzaffarova, V Shahbazova, H-Z Abbasova, M Ahmadova
EuroHockey Nations Championships:
Relegation pool results: Ireland 2 (N Symmons, A Speers) Azerbaijan 1 (Z Mammodova); Scotland 1 Russia 1
Relegation pool table (points/goal difference): 1. Ireland 4pts (+1) 2. Russia 2pts (0) 3. Scotland 2pts (0) 4. Azerbaijan 1pt (-1)