Martin O’Neill’s record suggests he can guide Ireland through
But Danes will fancy their chances of picking Irish lock if home side takes initiative
Martin O’Neill has suggested Ireland will need two goals in order to qualify for the World Cup. Photograph: Donall Farmer/PA
Denmark seem to have encountered Ireland’s first line of defence out at the airport on Sunday, where officials from the visiting federation were apparently infuriated by members of the team having to queue for passport control along with everyone else while their kit took an hour to appear on the carousels.
Call it overzealous but it’s just the sort of all-hands-on-deck attitude that Martin O’Neill is going to need at the Aviva if he and his players are to make it safely though to Russia next summer.
Obstructing Åge Hareide’s men may not be the greatest challenge faced by the hosts tonight, however. Ciaran Clark and co showed that, with the occasional dig-out from Darren Randolph, they could do that fairly effectively at the weekend. The trick now, if they are not to have to hang on through extra time for penalties, is to add a goal threat of their own without easing up too much on the defensive side of things.
O’Neill insists they can do it but suggests they will need two goals to progress. His record suggests he can get them to deliver when it matters, but scoring twice would be new territory for this team, with all of its big wins under the Derry man – against Germany, Italy, Austria and Wales – secured by a single goal to nil.
The 65-year-old is frank about how the team is crying out for a more natural goalscorer, and his options are clearly not great this evening, when he will have to weigh up whether to take another chance on Shane Long at a time when the striker is struggling to emerge from a drought of almost biblical proportions or stick with Daryl Murphy.
The 34-year-old put in a decent shift in Copenhagen but never remotely threatened Kasper Schmeichel’s goal and just three days on it would be asking a lot for him to lead the line against Simon Kjaer and Andreas Bjelland, centre-backs who both have a few years on the Waterford man, a slight edge in terms of size and a deep-rooted familiarity with what he brings to the party.
Ireland’s greater goalscoring threat may well come from other areas of the team, with the striker – or strikers – required to help carve out chances for the likes of James McClean and Jeff Hendrick as they push on. Clark and Shane Duffy, meanwhile, will inevitably pile forward for every one of Robbie Brady’s set-pieces.
The Hoolahan equation
Wes Hoolahan would certainly help on a night like this, and there is a decent case to be made for starting him, although it seems more likely that he will appear from the bench over the course of the second half as O’Neill opts to bring David Meyler back to play alongside Harry Arter.
Ireland’s ability to hold its own will be of critical importance in that central area if the team is to be nudged forward on to its front foot while still doing enough to contain the Danes.
Christian Eriksen will be anticipating a more profitable night, with the likes of Brady, who played a part in shutting him down on Saturday, unlikely to spend quite so much time between him and the Irish goal. McClean’s greater emphasis on attack, meanwhile, will mean a little less protection for Stephen Ward.
That should increase the options on the ball for Eriksen, who tended to target Cyrus Christie in the first game – particularly if, as expected, Yussuf Poulsen, whose late header in the first leg severely tested Randolph, starts this time on the right. Hareide has taken a bit of flak for going with striker Andreas Cornelius ahead of him there in the first leg, and his performances in the group stage games, when he linked up really well with Peter Ankersen at times, suggests he would improve the visitors in an area that has been of pivotal importance to them.
Cornelius could start up front this time, although Nicolai Jørgensen could keep his place or both might lose out if, as some suspect, the manager opts for Nicklas Bendtner.
Left-back Jens Larsen will again be just as keen as Ankersen to get forward, but the open spaces left behind by the pair as they advance should offer opportunities for the home side to get forward in a way they very rarely did in the first game. What Ireland might make of them remains to be seen – after all, a couple of the most celebrated wins under O’Neill did not involve especially enterprising performances – but the Danes will know that if they let up at any stage, then they may be made to pay a high price by a team with a knack for grabbing a goal when there is a gun to its head.
Like O’Neill, Hareide seems to expect that the Danes will manage to score at some stage but, one suspects, he might regard his old friend’s suggestion that the Irish can get two as slightly optimistic. The history of ties this finely balanced provides very few clues. Just five of 48 two-leg play-off games between Europeans down the years have reached the halfway point still scoreless, and of those the teams that played at home first won out on three occasions. In the Champions League over the past five seasons, the equivalent figure is five from 70 knock-out ties in the latter stages of the competition, but with the clubs that travelled first winning four.
But O’Neill has a proven record of getting the best out his side on the biggest occasions, and the confidence generated by the side’s previous successes should stand to them. Ireland are no longer just hard to beat when it matters, they can actually win when their backs are to the wall as well.
If they do it this evening, in front of a full house at Lansdowne Road, it should make for one of the really great nights at the stadium, old or new. But afterwards they should probably be hoping they are not drawn in the same group as Russia next summer; there’s no telling what would await them at the airport.
Republic of Ireland: Randolph (Middlesbrough); Christie (Middlesbrough), Clark (Newcastle United), Duffy (Brighton), Ward (Burnley); Meyler (Hull City), Arter (Bournemouth); Brady (Burnley), Hendrick (Burnley), McClean (West Brom); Long (Southampton).
Denmark: Schmeichel (Leicester City); Ankersen (Copenhagen), Kjaer (Seville), Bjelland (Brentford), Larsen (Udinese); Delaney (Werder Bremen), Kvist (Copenhagen); Poulsen (Leipzig), Eriksen (Tottenham Hotspur), Sisto (Celta Vigo); Cornelius (Atalanta).
Referee: Szymon Marciniak (Poland)