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Set pieces boost Ireland

Set pieces boost Ireland

"I'm relaxed and the team seem to be the same," said David Connell as his Republic of Ireland team became the 25th national side to grace the Under-19 final tournament. "It's a big step for some of them, so we'll have to see how they go. We'll make it difficult for the other teams." They did. To the extent that the Irish debutants were the only team to win all three group games – fighting back from a goal down in two of them – to become the trending topic of the tournament. In their opener, commitment, work ethic and tenacity, coupled with aggressive pressure, gave them the ultimate edge in the 1-0 win against Spain. They then prevented England from scoring more than once and overpowered and outjumped defenders to convert two set plays into goals. Against Sweden, two free-kicks yielded the same dividend.


Ireland celebrate victory against Sweden

The Irish successes torpedoed the group. Their opening victory submitted Jorge Vilda's Spain to extreme pressure. Nerves jangled against Sweden and England, but their faith in technique and possession play ultimately secured a brace of 2-0 victories that earned second place, even though England's positional rotations initially wreaked havoc among the Spaniards' marking strategy.

The English, led by youth team coordinator Brent Hills while head coach Mo Marley prepared the 'first-choice' squad for the imminent FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup, fielded youthful, inexperienced teams which nonetheless played attractive combination football lacking only a cutting edge in the final third. Three defeats represented scant recompense yet augured well for players eligible to queue up for second helpings in 2014/15. The first reverse (0-2 against Sweden thanks to an own goal and a cute lofted pass over the full-back) seemed to have put Calle Barrling's team in the driving seat. But they struggled to cope with Spain's possession game and their sprinkling of attempts on goal could mostly be traced back to a dead ball. Despite ticking a lot of boxes with their superbly organised 4-4-2, Sweden's campaign hit the buffers when the two Irish set plays hit their net.

While Group B was going to the wire, there was an early faller in Group A. Belgium had provided the surprise of the year by eliminating Germany and underlined their ability to pick off through balls by carving out a sequence of one-on-one confrontations with the Scotland goalkeeper – only to squander them all. Untimely ball losses condemned them to a 2-0 defeat and a pressure-laden second game against the hosts. Again, good work and endeavour were undone by lapses and finishing – and the 2-1 reverse gave anecdotal status to their 1-0 defeat in the local derby against the Netherlands.

With three points in the bag, Scotland started disastrously against the Dutch, conceding three in the opening 24 minutes, prompting Gareth Evans to switch from 4-4-2 to 4-3-3 after half an hour and to make a double substitution at half-time. His reshuffle fell just short of providential as the Scots found two goals – but not a third. In the sweltering heat that made teams toil on the final day of the group stage, Scotland wilted – again conceding three before the break and, after it, this time shipping two more instead of scoring them. The 5-0 victory showcased Norway's virtues. The Dutch had managed to contain them on the opening day, but Belgians and Scots were unable to counter the power, the pace and the attacking vocation of Jarl Torske's team as the hosts claimed top place in the group.


Spain came good against the hosts

But Torske's dream of bringing down the curtain on 14 years of U18 and U19 coaching by winning the title was dashed by a below-par performance against a Spanish team that was improving game by game. Jorge Vilda's game plan featured tight individual control on Norway's catalytic midfielders Lisa Naalsund and Sigrid Hansen, while María Caldentey ran the hosts' defence ragged with skilful raiding on the left and threatening combinations by the elusive, hard-running striker Nahikari García. A nervous first half, played under torrential rain, was punctuated by rapid turnovers as neither team was able to take a firm grip on possession. It was only after the break that Spain put their game together; they carved out chance after chance against a jittery defence – but failed to capitalise. Surviving 15 minutes, the hosts began to win ground, only to concede an opener after twice failing to clear a short corner. Another corner, deep into added time, sealed their fate, with Spain captain Marta Turmo ambitiously surging forward from central defence into the Norway area to bang a conclusive header into the net.

The other semi-final, despite kicking off an hour later, was effectively ended at the same time. Republic of Ireland coach David Connell acknowledged that the semi-final had been a bridge too far after watching his team ship two goals in 34 minutes and struggle to cope with Dutch power play. Two more goals in the opening 10 minutes of the second half allowed the impressively powerful striker Vivianne Miedema to complete a hat-trick, and allowed coach Andre Koolhof to tranquilly rotate his squad with substitutions as his side cruised to a 4-0 win that set up a mouth-watering final in the magnificent setting of Ullevaal stadium in Oslo.