Irish frustrate Danes to fuel finals ambition
They walked off the pitch to a standing ovation, the cheers and applause from their delighted supporters drifting down the tunnel after them, but if this was a victory of sorts for the Republic of Ireland, it was an ugly one.
Seen through the eyes of their hosts, they may as well have been slipping away from a crime scene. For Denmark, this felt like death by strangulation.
The Danes will seek justice in Dublin, but Ireland have the upper hand after grinding out a goalless draw in the first leg of this play-off.
They squeezed the life out of their hosts and, by the end, there was little fight left in them. It remains to be seen whether they can recover.
As bad as Martin O’Neill’s team were in terms of keeping hold of the ball and using it decisively, their ability to play without meaningful possession in the opposition half means victory on Tuesday night will be enough to send them to the World Cup. “The game is evenly poised for the second leg,” said O’Neill. “There is no doubt they have the ability to score a goal in the Aviva Stadium, so we might have to score two.
“We will have to use the ball a lot better than we did. We obviously want to be better with the ball, but the players put in a really big effort.
“The pitch was really awkward tonight. It might not have been the best [performance] but, overall, we adjusted and we coped for the most part.”
It is just as well Ireland are so well drilled at playing without the ball because there are times when they appear to have very little ability with it.
Not for the first time, this was a difficult to watch for long periods; tough to take any sort of pleasure from other than the result.
That, though, is all that ultimately matters. If O’Neill can lead Ireland to their first World Cup finals for 16 years, nobody will care how he did it.
He is a pragmatist not an entertainer. He knows the limitations of the Ireland team, so makes sure he disguises them.
Ireland can be a hard team to like if you still believe the idea that football is the beautiful game, but there is no denying they are effective.
Ireland’s lines move as one, dropping back or forward in unison. When the defence drops deeper, the space they leave is filled seamlessly by a fiveman midfield that spreads the width of the pitch.
When they push up, the formation does not change, the gaps between them do not alter.
Ireland are so organised that they resemble a Roman Phalanx, their defensive shield almost impenetrable as long as they work together and remember their training drills.
O’Neill would like his team to be more than that. Sometimes they can be, but this cold night in the Danish capital was not one of them. There were spells in this game, particularly in the second half as he and Roy Keane screamed their frustration on the touchline, that Ireland’s passing was atrocious rather than just wayward.
In the end, it did not matter. The Denmark players were frustrated and grew desperate.
They had three good chances over the course of the 90 minutes, Ireland had two. For all of the difference between the two teams in terms of ambition and attacking intent, it could have been an even worse night for the home team. As it is, they still have a chance of progressing and will hope Ireland can also be frustrated in front of their own supporters.
Two of Denmark’s chances could be classed as excellent, the first from a long diagonal ball over the top of rightback Cyrus Christie which found the run of Jens Stryger Larsen. He took it down and got away a shot which was kept out by Darren Randolph. The loose ball fell perfectly to Andreas Cornelius, but he could only hit it straight at the goalkeeper.
The second came from a swerving shot from Christian Erkisen, that Randolph once again pushed out, but not away from danger.
This time, from a tighter angle, Pione Sisto fired the ball wide.
Ireland had not got going, but they almost scored just before the break. Christie somehow wriggled into the area from the right flank and was in on goal, only for Kasper Schmeichel to sprint off his line, narrow the angle and get a hand up to block his shot as the Ireland full-back tried to lift the ball over him.
It was hoped there would be more entertainment in the seond period, but in truth it simply ground to a stalemate. Neither side threatened until a late flurry of goalmouth action, as Shane Duffy saw a glancing header saved and Randolph tipped one over from the frustrated Poulson at the other end.
“We created enough chances to win the game,” Age Hareide, the Denmark manager, said. “We had at least three big chances. “But we have to get the ball in between the posts, that’s always important. We knew Ireland would be hard to break down and when you don’t take the chances, they survive.
“But 0-0 at home is not a bad result. A goal away will be very vital for us. They don’t score two goals many times. We will go over to Dublin and try to get that goal.
“We had the ball 65 per cent. We played well enough to win. If we play like this in Dublin, we will win.”
High point: Denmark’s Christian Eriksen and Stephen Ward engage in an acrobatic tussle at Copenhagen’s Parken Stadium last night