The Irish Times - Sports Weekend

Pauw cedes top spot but can see a path to qualificat­ion for Ireland

Manager says team will be realistic and focus on beating Finland for play- off place

- Mary Hannigan

“Not bad,” said a content enough Vera Pauw after the Republic of Ireland were drawn in a group with Sweden, Finland, Slovakia and Georgia for their 2023 World Cup qualifying campaign. The coach all but ceded top spot in the group to the Swedes, reckoning that, for the Republic, the effort to qualify for their first major tournament would hinge on their battle with the Finns for second and a place in the play- offs.

While t hat might have smacked of a lack of ambition, Pauw insisted that she was simply being realistic, Sweden, after all, the fifth- ranked nation in the world, who beat England to finish third at the last World Cup.

“Sweden is a very, very strong team, they have qualified for the Olympics, so they’re one of the best three teams in Europe – that shows it all,” she said. “Our aim, then, should be getting the runner- up position, that is just perspectiv­e. Of course, we will do everything to top Sweden, but let’s stay realistic – if we were going to shout that we can beat Sweden twice in the group, that would not be realistic. Our main focus is that we should get the mistakes out of our game so that we do not lose unnecessar­y goals. If we manage that, I am sure that we will qualify for at least the play- offs.”

Impressive

While Finland, the group’s second seeds who, at 24, are ranked 10 places above the Republic, had an impressive Euro 2022 qualifying campaign, topping a group that contained Portugal and Scotland by winning seven and drawing one of their eight games, Pauw believes the Republic are capable of getting the better of them.

“They are strong, but they are not unbeatable, let’s say it like that,” she said. “They are rising, but so are we. It’s definitely a team we can play against, and definitely a team that we have a chance against if we grow the way we have been growing.”

Once again, the Republic share a group with Slovakia, having beaten them home and away in their last World Cup qualifying campaign, while Georgia, ranked at 126 in the world, are the group’s outsiders.

“They are the teams ranked below us, so we should be able to get our points there. This group is the same as last time, the number one seeds have an easy go, pot two and three are fighting for second place, and the rest, you have to beat.”

The 2023 version of the World Cup, which will be hosted by Australia and New Zealand, will feature 32 nations, having been expanded from 24, with the winners of each of the nine European qualifying groups sealing a spot, the runners- up entering the play- offs.

Northern Ireland, who qualified for Euro 2022 earlier this month, the first time they secured a spot in a major tournament, were drawn with England, Austria, North Macedonia, Latvia and Luxembourg.

The Republic produced one of their finest- ever results in the last qualifying campaign, a draw away to European champions the Netherland­s, who were finalists in the 2019 World Cup, but they couldn’t maintain that momentum and ended up third in the group and missed out on a place in the play- offs.

Their Euro 2022 qualifying campaign was all the more frust r at i ng, a defeat away t o Ukraine, courtesy of an own goal, scuppering their hopes of a play- off spot. This time, Pauw is convinced, they can do better and finally make that major tournament breakthrou­gh.

 ?? PHOTOGRAPH: HARRY MURPHY/ SPORTSFILE ?? Manager Vera Pauw fist bumps Shaunna Brennan before a Republic of Ireland WNT home- based training session in ■
Abbotstown this week.
PHOTOGRAPH: HARRY MURPHY/ SPORTSFILE Manager Vera Pauw fist bumps Shaunna Brennan before a Republic of Ireland WNT home- based training session in ■ Abbotstown this week.
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