Ire­land per­se­vere with pain game to keep hopes alive

O’Neill’s team frus­trate Danes and trust in de­liv­er­ance in Dublin to­mor­row

The Irish Times - Monday - Sport - - Front Page - Keith Dug­gan in Copen­hagen

“It’s not that I’m so smart,” claimed Al­bert Ein­stein. “It’s just that I stay with prob­lems longer.”

The Repub­lic of Ire­land are the foot­ball prob­lem that time or per­se­ver­ance can­not solve and would surely leave the physi­cist in the same place as many oth­ers who have tried to crack it: ly­ing down in a dark­ened room, nurs­ing a bad headache.

Those 90 tough and unlov­able min­utes in Copen­hagen on Satur­day night did noth­ing to en­hance Ire­land’s rep­u­ta­tion as a fi­nesse team but, again, they were rigidly ef­fec­tive. An­other away re­sult and no goals con­ceded. Martin O’Neill and his team’s task has be­come sim­ple: win a match in Dublin against a Den­mark team still feel­ing the bruises and frus­tra­tions of the first bout.

On Fri­day night in Copen­hagen, both Kasper Sch­me­ichel and Chris­tian Erik­sen paid trib­ute to Ire­land’s “spirit” and reck­oned that break­ing that was the key to beat­ing Ire­land.

Fool­ish

About an hour into Satur­day’s match, it must have oc­curred to both men how fool­ish and in­no­cent that thought was. It is Ir­ish play­ers who are the mas­ters of the spirit-break­ing. When Den­mark man­ager Age Hareide fi­nally came in from the cold af­ter 11pm and re­flected about what he had seen, he in­sisted that 0-0 wasn’t a bad re­sult for Den­mark. The loud boos as the team left the field sug­gested he was at odds with lo­cal opin­ion. Hareide sounded like a man who was try­ing to re­as­sure him­self that things were still okay.

He is a deeply ex­pe­ri­enced prac­ti­tioner and he took com­fort in the thought of what scor­ing an away goal in Dublin. Be­cause Ire­land would have to score two and they don’t do that many times. So we will come to Dublin and try to get that goal. I also think Ire­land have to get for­ward more – the crowd will prob­a­bly push them and that may give us a bit more space.”

“Space” was prob­a­bly the word most of­ten used by the Dan­ish play­ers af­ter the match. Ire­land don’t mind if their op­po­nents have the ball. In a way, they kind of like it be­cause it means they can’t make mis­takes. What they loathe to give is space and time to other teams. “A lot of traf­fic,” nod­ded Erik­sen som­brely as he stood near where the Ire­land team bus idled, wait­ing to rush the team out to the air­port. “They play very com­pact and keep­ing the ball go­ing wasn’t easy. We went for the longer ball more than we prob­a­bly should.”

That’s what hap­pens to teams play­ing Ire­land. There is no room to breathe. The tack­les are teem­ing in. The pass­ing be­comes wild. The home team grow frus­trated. Sooner or later they lose sight of the game­plan and run out of ideas and be­come stuck when it dawns on them they have been drawn into a state of foot­ball ex­is­tence in which the Ir­ish are happy.

It hap­pened to Wales in Cardiff. It hap­pened in Copen­hagen. The match was so grimly com­bat­ive and aus­tere it made a mock­ery of the fire­works dis­play be­fore­hand. This was not about cel­e­bra­tion. It was about mere sur­vival. Dar­ren Ran­dolph made three ex­cep­tional re­flex saves to keep the Dan­ish out but the amaz­ing thing was de­spite never wor­ry­ing about the at­tack­ing side of things, Ire­land, too, might have scored.

One of the many dif­fi­cul­ties in plan­ning for Ire­land is they have no ob­vi­ous dan­ger man: a full­back is as likely to bag a goal as the cen­tre for­ward. As a group, Ire­land are con­tent with know­ing that, on the law of av­er­ages, some­one will get a chance at some stage. On Satur­day night, the golden mo­ment fell to Cyrus Christie, just be­fore half-time when he made a smart run be­hind the cover of­fered by Jens Stryger Larsen.

Bob­ble

“I tried to get it over Sch­me­ichel but the bob­ble was on it and I couldn’t get enough power on it to lift it over him,” Christie re­called. “But it was a good chance and an­other day it prob­a­bly spills out to some­one and they put it in on the re­bound. When I con­nected I thought it could be go­ing in but he made the save and I think the touch just got away from Jeff [Hen­drick]. It would have been per­fect if some­one had been in at the back post but it wasn’t meant to be and hope­fully we will get more chances on Tues­day.”

In the pit of his stom­ach, Hareide knows this is true. For there is an­other truth that the Danes are prob­a­bly re­luc­tant to think about. On Satur­day night, they merely met Ire­land in con­tain­ment mode. What it is go­ing to be like when they ex­pe­ri­ence them amped up by 50,000 Ire­land fans? “We would ob­vi­ously want to be bet­ter with the ball in Dublin,” al­lowed Martin O’Neill dur­ing a brief post-match re­view. And he prob­a­bly means it. Ire­land would like to play bet­ter. But that is not es­sen­tial. All that mat­ters is the Danes are not al­lowed to be bet­ter on the ball.

Deep down, Hareide may well know a dreamy wish for a pitch with space may be delu­sional and that Den­mark are about to be sucked deeper into Ire­land’s tough and two-di­men­sional foot­ball world.

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