Ex­pec­ta­tions low­ered but hopes still high

De­spite ab­sence of Cole­man and Brady, a win is not be­yond a pos­si­bil­ity

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - Emmet Malone Soccer Cor­re­spon­dent

League B, Group Four Repub­lic of Ire­land v Den­mark Aviva Sta­dium, 7.45pm Live on Sky Sports Foot­ball

Martin O’Neill says that he feels some of his play­ers have suf­fered a lit­tle as they strug­gled to meet the ex­pec­ta­tions they gen­er­ated for them­selves while reach­ing the knock­out stages of the Euro­pean Cham­pi­onships a cou­ple of years ago. He and the wider team, at least, have no such is­sue to con­tend with as they pre­pare to meet Den­mark again.

Ev­ery­one in­volved goes into this game un­der the shadow cast by the slightly shock­ing na­ture of Ire­land’s de­feats in the team’s last two com­pet­i­tive out­ings. O’Neill takes ex­cep­tion to the two be­ing so closely linked when they were 10 months part, sug­gest­ing, in ef­fect, they were two en­tirely un­re­lated bad days at the of­fice. With three more Na­tions League games to come against the same two teams, we re­ally could do with dis­pelling the no­tion that we might be head­ing for the equiv­a­lent of a very bad week.

Ire­land will be with­out their cap­tain, Séa­mus Cole­man, and set-piece spe­cial­ist Rob­bie Brady, but if these things were a trade then they would prob­a­bly still look to be ahead given that Chris­tian Erik­sen will be ab­sent for the Danes.

Age Hareide has more Pre­mier League play­ers at his dis­posal than his old friend, and as many again from Europe’s other top leagues, but there is no get­ting away from the fact that his side does not look nearly so daunt­ing with­out a player who dom­i­nates the at­tack­ing side of Den­mark’s game.

Carved open

In Dublin last year, the mid­fielder carved Ire­land open once O’Neill’s side was com­mit­ted to chas­ing the game in the sec­ond half. In his ab­sence, Ire­land will not feel nearly so vul­ner­a­ble, although the changed na­ture of this match means that the hosts are hugely un­likely to play with any­thing like the level of aban­don they dis­played as that night wore on.

On the face of it, it will not be hard to achieve some­thing that might be de­scribed as an im­prove­ment after hav­ing con­ceded five and four, but O’Neill in­sists he has no need to “steady the ship” and so, with a fair bit still to be played for, it will be in­ter­est­ing to see the ex­tent to which he pushes for a win. There is prize money up for grabs here and no­tion­ally even the chance to pro­vide some in­sur­ance against a poor qual­i­fi­ca­tion cam­paign, but the most im­me­di­ate con­cern is to avoid last place in this three-team pool as that would mean be­ing a third rather than a sec­ond seed in De­cem­ber’s draw for the Euro2020 qual­i­fi­ca­tion group stage.

Achiev­ing even a sec­ond-place fin­ish is, re­al­is­ti­cally, go­ing to re­quire at least one of these two home games to be won, and if the first does not go well it will be that much harder to see how O’Neill can spark a sig­nif­i­cant im­prove­ment be­fore Tues­day.

His hopes here seem to rest on a tac­ti­cal shift he has been toy­ing with for a while now: al­low­ing his play­ers to pose a sus­tained threat to their op­po­nents with­out get­ting opened again at the back. He will, he has heav­ily hinted, go with three cen­tral de­fend­ers and wing backs, and, if that’s the case, then Cole­man’s ab­sence will surely open the door for Matt Do­herty whose case for start­ing ahead of Cyrus Christie has surely be­come unan­swer­able in re­cent weeks.

Tougher test

The big­ger is­sue with the for­ma­tion is on the left where Enda Stevens is likely to face a tougher test than in Cardiff, where the Welsh were largely done by the time he came on for Stephen Ward. Both he and Do­herty will bear a fair bit of re­spon­si­bil­ity for get­ting the ball into the box from wide area.

It is far from clear who will be there if they do. Shane Long trained yes­ter­day and still looks an ob­vi­ous op­tion if he is fully fit, pos­si­bly with Callum Robin­son play­ing off him. The lat­ter’s goals of late count heav­ily in his favour at a time when Sean Maguire is only re­turn­ing from in­jury and Scott Ho­gan has not been play­ing com­pet­i­tively.

Be­yond that, it will largely be about a cou­ple of play­ers be­ing an aw­ful lot bet­ter than they were in Wales. Harry Arter should, on the face of it, prob­a­bly start in cen­tral mid­field, but after all that has gone on it seems a lit­tle un­likely. Jeff Hen­drick, who was on hand at the pre-match press con­fer­ence yes­ter­day to say how much he “en­joys” Roy Keane’s in­ter­ac­tions with the play­ers, is cer­tain to start.

Even against a side that is miss­ing its stand­out star player, win­ning some­how seems like a de­cent-sized ask right now. That’s what hap­pens, though, when a cou­ple of calami­tous per­for­mances send ex­pec­ta­tions crash­ing.

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