Keith Duggan: Ireland persevere with the pain game
Martin O’Neill’s team frustrate Danes in first leg and trust in Dublin deliverance
Darren Randolph makes a late save in the World Cup playoff in Copenhagen. Photograph: James Crombie
Christian Eriksen of Denmark looks dejected after the World Cup qualifier play-off: first leg in Copenhagen. Photograph: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images
“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, once 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. 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 Age Hareide finally came in from the cold after 11pm on Saturday night and reflected about what he had just seen, he insisted that 0-0 wasn’t a bad result for Denmark. The loud boos as the team left the field suggested that 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 that 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 at all if their opponents have the ball. In a way, they kind of like it because it means they can’t make mistakes. What they absolutely 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, engine on, 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.”
No room to breathe
That’s what happens to teams playing Ireland. There is no room to breathe. The tackles are teeming in. The passing becomes wild. Sometimes the ball hangs in the air as if helium-filled, as if frightened to come back down.
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 that they have been drawn into a state of football existence in which the Irish are perfectly happy.
It happened to Wales in Cardiff. And then it happened in Copenhagen. The match was so grimly combative and austere that 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 that despite never worrying about the attacking side of things, Ireland, too, might have scored.
One of the many difficulties in planning for Ireland is that 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. It doesn’t really matter who. 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.
“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] in the end. 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.”
Ireland would like to play better. But that is not essential. All that matters is that the Danes are not allowed to be better on the ball
In the pit of his stomach, Hareide knows that this is true. For there is another truth that the Danes are probably reluctant to think about, let alone speak out loud. 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 who can extract a kind of music and logic from the game their team plays? How painful is that going to be?
“We would obviously want to be better with the ball in Dublin,” allowed Martin O’Neill during a brief and distracted post-match review.
And he probably means it. Ireland would like to play better. But that is not essential. All that matters is that the Danes are not allowed to be better on the ball.
Deep down, Hareide may well know that 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.