Scotland and Real Madrid midfielder Caroline Weir, who beat Austria in the play-off semi-finals, hosted Ireland this Tuesday in search of a win that could help them get their second-ever qualification to the Women's World Cup.
The two top-ranked winners from the three-round play-off finals will qualify directly for the World Cup, with the third facing an inter-confederation play-off in New Zealand in February.
Scotland needed a mix of results to qualify, but they had to win this game either in normal time or penalties to have a chance. The Irish, ranking third based on their qualification record to date, had to win and hope that at least one of Switzerland or Iceland would lose or only win on penalties.
Scotland started playing in more of a 4-3-3 setup during the first half, with Caroline Weir as the left-sided midfielder in the trio. In the second half, however, the team switched to something more of a 4-2-3-1, with Weir having a freer, 10-like role.
Meanwhile, the Irish lined up in a 5-4-1 deeper block that was very physical and tough to break down for the more technical Scottish players.
The first half went poorly for Scotland. After a period of initial control and dominance, in the 12th minute, Weir passed into the box to Fiona Brown, who crossed to striker Martha Thomas. Thomas' shot led to a handball and a penalty kick. Weir took the penalty, which was successfully stopped by keeper Courtney Brosnan.
Scotland did not handle the penalty miss well, losing steam throughout the rest of the first half. Their possessions become shorter and less continuous, with Ireland consistently winning the ball whenever the Scots reached their half. As the half continued, Ireland regained possession higher and higher up the pitch, leading to situations where their wingers and striker could run at or behind the Scottish defensive line and fashion more chances.
Ireland’s best attacking threat came from the long throw-ins from Megan Campbell. This one, for example, saw Niamh Fahey almost head the ball into the net.
After a frustrating first half, Scotland started strongly. Switching to more of a 4-2-3-1, Weir operated more like a free attacking midfielder. She started finding more open spaces to receive, turn, and drive forward with the ball at her feet. She could also move across the pitch as a passing outlet for quick layoffs or aggressively attack the box.
Scotland managed to pin the Irish back, but turning their passes into the box into shots still proved incredibly difficult due to Ireland’s outstanding defending of their box. Weir had a chance where she could carry the ball to the edge of the box and shoot but could not hit the ball well enough to really threaten the keeper.
After their intense defending, the Irish finally found their chance to win the game in the 72nd minute. They intercepted a pass from center-back Sophie Howard, and Irish midfielder Denise O'Sullivan passed into space for Amber Barrett, who had come in as a substitute in the 66th minute. Barrett managed to outrun Howard and coolly finish towards the far post.
A Scottish siege of the Irish fortress followed during the game's final twenty minutes. Once again, however, they generated very few good shots due to the great box defending from Ireland; they cleared most danger away from their box and it was near-impossible for the Scots to produce a shot that wasn't blocked by an Irish body. And, so, the Irish maintained their lead till the end and ensured qualification to the World Cup.
After they couldn't reach qualification for the 2022 Women's Euros, this will be another bitter qualification pill to swallow for Weir and Scotland, who came incredibly close to making it this time.