Ireland dig deep again to frustrate the Danes
Denmark denied the comfort of a home goal as dogged visitors spoil the play-off party
If, perchance, you have been struggling to get your head around the Danish concept of “hygge”, then Saturday’s game at the Parken stadium might well have been useful. Play-off football in close to its rawest form, it was almost the polar opposite of something the locals here talk warmly about in terms of comfort and contentment.
Ireland came and spoiled their moment and, by the end of it all, the home support’s earlier positivity had clearly subsided. Quite a few booed as the final whistle sounded and the players started to make their way to the dressing-rooms. A handful sought to take more direct action, with a couple of the Irish players having beers aimed at them.
Martin O’Neill and his men would, as they say, have taken it all if it had been offered to them beforehand.
The performance they produced was not pretty nor anywhere near as physically impressive or imposing as the one that had earned them a win in Cardiff, but it was good enough to thwart the Danes. Having beaten Poland 4-0 here a couple of months back, Denmark might have been expected to have a few more tricks up their collective sleeve. Perhaps Poland’s own ambition on the night contributed to their downfall; Ireland certainly could not have been accused of that.
“Maybe we thought they would come out of the blocks and try to attack in more numbers rather just kick the ball away and hope to hit a player,” observed former Arsenal striker Nicklas Bendtner afterwards.
“But they defended with their lives, as we’ve seen. We had three good chances; maybe we could have done better with some of them but they defended really well. They are strong so we have to match that on the away pitch and we have to take our chance and hopefully get a goal.” Clear-cut The first two of those three chances were so clear-cut that, really, Ireland have to count themselves very fortunate not have conceded. Had they conceded, there is no telling how the rest of the night would have gone. Perhaps they might even have gone on to get an equaliser that would have left them in a significantly stronger position ahead of Tuesday’s second leg, which they must now either win or keep scoreless for 120 minutes before hopefully progressing on penalties.
As it was, Darren Randolph made a double save 12 minutes in and Pione Sisto missed what might be best described as a sitter after 24.
In both instances, defensive errors contributed to the build-up, but it was the first – when Cyrus Christie was caught out by Simon Kjaer’s angled ball into space inside the area for Jens Larsen – that really set the alarm bells ringing. The Danish full-back’s initial shot was turned towards the centre of the area by Randolph, who did well to get moving again so quickly, although his efforts would have been academic had Andreas Cornelius had a cool enough head to pick any spot other than the one directly on front of him.
The wider concern, though, was that the Danes seemed to have identified the Irish full-backs, especially Christie, as weaknesses, and Christian Eriksen spent a good portion of his evening trying to play Sisto in behind the Middlesbrough man. With the match still in its infancy, it seemed we might be in for a very anxious night but, in truth, while the wings remained fairly productive for the home side, they were never to open the Irish up to anything like the same extent over the rest of the evening. Headed goalward In the dying minutes, a cross from the same side was headed goalward by substitute Yussuf Poulsen (whose initial omission may well have been a blessing for Ireland), but Randolph reacted well to turn the ball over the bar. In between, there was almost nothing of note from a Danish perspective, and the latest in what is doubtless a very large collection of man of the match awards was handed to Eriksen – presumably because the most obvious alternative was the visiting goalkeeper.
In front of Randolph, much of what went on from an Ireland perspective had a heavily improvised feel about it, with Ireland digging in in numbers and all too rarely doing anything constructive to turn defence into attack. There was all the usual energy, though, and towards the end of the first half they did start to make the occasional foray, most memorably when Jeff Hendrick and Daryl Murphy combined out wide to release Christie, who rounded Larsen rather impressively before Kasper Schmeichel eventually smothered his close-range shot.
Alongside Hendrick in the holding role, Harry Arter had his moments while Robbie Brady, after a poor start, and surprise selection Callum O’Dowda, after an anonymous one, began to make more of an impression. Brady’s set-pieces, though, all aimed at Shane Duffy or captain Ciarán Clark, looked like the only potential source of an Ireland goal that would have been entirely against the run of play. Conceding possession Ireland, as they so often do, made life difficult for themselves by ceding possession at almost every turn. But they coped rather well with the consequences, and Denmark, for all of Eriksen’s apparent eagerness to run the show from 30 metres out, simply could not find a way to create anything of note a little further forward. In their frustration, the handful of shots from distance they attempted were easy pickings for Randolph.
“I think it [Tuesday’s game] will be a different match,” said a hopeful Bendtner. “They know that they can’t play a match where they have to stay so deep. They know they have to come out; they have to try to score. They can’t play a game of this importance for zero-zero. So I think it will be a little more open.
“I think the pitch here was disappointing too,” he continued. “It made it difficult for both teams. But I’ve heard the pitch in Ireland is excellent so I suppose we can play better.”
He had had already endured enough disappointment for one night and so we decided not to mention the rugby.
They can’t play a game of this importance for zero-zero – Nicklas Bendtner
Clockwise from main: Darren Randolph saves from Yussuf Poulsen; Christian Eriksen reacts after the game; Denmark’s goalkeeper Kasper Schmeiche saves from Cyrus Christie.