‘Easy to read, difficult to beat’. The Denmark manager, Age Hareide, took no satisfaction from the fact that his pre-match assessment of this Republic of Ireland team turned out to be prophetic. Martin O’Neill, meanwhile, is happy that Ireland’s World Cup fate will be determined in Dublin, a goalless draw ensuring the suspense in this play-off will carry over into Tuesday’s second leg.
O’Neill conceded, that his team will have to show more creativity to profit from their home advantage. It would have been ludicrous to claim otherwise given that here they treated the ball like almost as much of an adversary as the Danes, with both kept mostly at a distance. Each manager complained afterwards about the bumpiness of the pitch but the Danish players made it look smoother than the Irish.
‘We would obviously want to be better with the ball in Dublin,’ said O’Neill. ‘We’ll need to be, in all honesty, to score a goal. [The tie] is very evenly poised. [Hareide] said they’re capable of scoring at the Aviva and I wouldn’t doubt that. With the players they possess they’re capable of scoring a goal so we might have to score two to win the match. But we’re capable of that.’
Ireland will be at full strength on Tuesday, as none of their eight players who started this leg on a yellow card received another one. David Meyler, forced to sit this out, will return from suspension. This was a disciplined and spirited Irish performance. Yes, the highlights of the clash could be condensed into a couple of minutes but this team will enter Irish football’s history books if the eventual outcome is qualification for a first World Cup since 2002.
As for those highlights, Darren Randolph will feature prominently. The goalkeeper made three fine saves here to thwart the Danes when they managed to penetrate the Irish defence. All that was missing for the visitors was a breakaway goal, which Cyrus Christie almost pinched just before half-time before being foiled by Kasper Schmeichel.
Despite knowing how Ireland would play, Hareide probably did not foresee the inclusion in Ireland’s starting lineup of Callum O’Dowda, the 22-year-old whose only previous start for his country was in the relatively sedate setting of last month’s home match against Moldova. Deploying the Bristol City winger on the right enabled O’Neill to shift Robbie Brady into the central midfield berth vacated by Meyler, thus, in theory, giving Ireland more thrust than they would have had if the more experienced Glenn Whelan had started instead. That selection raised the possibility that O’Neill had not been bluffing in the previews when declaring his intention to ‘go for it’. Wrong. He was bluffing.
After some helter-skelter early exchanges, the contest settled into the pattern that Hareide predicted, Denmark dominating and Ireland defending deeply and doggedly. The role of Daryl Murphy, alone up front for the visitors, seemed ceremonial.
Although the Danes regularly fed Christian Eriksen in the hope that the Tottenham Hotspur schemer would concoct some ingenious way of unpicking a defence led by Shane Duffy, the hosts were not overly intricate and did not forsake the aerial route. That path would have led to a goal in the 10th minute if not for two saves by Randolph. The Middlesbrough goalkeeper parried a volley from the left-hand side of the box by Stryger Larsen after a long diagonal pass by Simon Kjaer and then blocked the follow-up by Andrea Cornelius.
The steadfastness of Ireland’s resistance seemed to cause Denmark to lose their poise. The second half descended into a scrappy duel, suiting the visitors more than the hosts. Eager for a twist, the home crowd cheered Nicklas Bendtner’s introduction in the 73rd minute. The former Arsenal and Sunderland striker made no impact. Yussuf Poulsen, however, nearly snatched a goal in the last minute but Randolph tipped his close-range header over the bar.
A 0-0 draw on the surface is a good result for Ireland but it can’t be overstated that single goal scored by the Danes on Tuesday night might be enough to end our World Cup dream for good.
Conor Lynott – Sports Editor