No yellow cards means the green team’s all there on Tuesday
James McClean and Harry Arter luckily avoid bookings, but talk will turn to Wes Hoolahan
Denmark manager Age Hareide and Danish forward Nicklas Bendtner shake hands with referee Milorad Mazic at the Parken stadium on Saturday. Photograph: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images
If Ireland do come out on the right end of Tuesday night’s turbo-spin, they might think kindly of Milorad Mazic. There were two occasions during the ragged and pattern-less closing quarter of the match in Copenhagen when the Serbian referee seemed to have reasonable cause to show a yellow card to both James McClean and Harry Arter.
The case against Arter – a crafty foul on William Kvist after an Irish mistake gave the Danes a rare chance to attack against a broken defence – was particularly testing. Arter, though, cut a conspicuously battered figure by this stage and after the foul he raised his arms towards Mazic and gave a rueful look as if to say: this is the world we live in. The Serb agreed and kept his cards in his pocket.
One of the underlying dangers was that Ireland would emerge from this first leg with one or more players unavailable because of yellow cards. McClean and Arter were among those on the last chance. But the disciplinary sheet remains the same and now David Meyler returns to strengthen Martin O’Neill’s midfield options.
“It wasn’t really mentioned,” Cyrus Christie said afterwards of the issue. “We knew obviously that everyone was on yellows. That kind of thing, it can’t cross your mind. You can’t focus on not getting yellows because anything can happen in the game. I think the ref did really well in the game. He let the game flow and didn’t give any silly bookings. For us, we kept our kept our heads and we didn’t make any silly tackles and now we’ve nobody missing for the net game. It’s a real positive because you want everyone and a full bill of health.”
Wes Hoolahan conversation
For O’Neill, the duty to do more than defend in Dublin will lead to an inevitable return to the Wes Hoolahan conversation. Including Callum O’Dowda alongside Arter on Saturday was adventurous, but no truly promising attacking move emanated from the Irish midfield. Hoolahan remains the player most likely to conjure up a game-changing pass out of the blue, while the other big choice for O’Neill is whether to persist with Daryl Murphy or gamble that Shane Long can rediscover his habit of scoring monumentally important goals.
The biggest Danish cheer in the Parken came when Nicklas Bendtner came ambling into the night to fulfil the role as reluctant hero. By then, a sense of mild despair had begun to afflict the initially boisterous home section behind Kasper Schmeichel’s goal. They were discovering the hard truth about what it’s like to play Ireland. Nothing happens, for long periods of time. Then comes a heartstopping moment when Ireland hare into an attack with as much ferocity as they defend.
Bendtner’s appearance was, at least, a relief from that combination of tedium and high anxiety. Age Hareide has Bendtner, Andreas Christensen and Yusuff Poulsen to call upon for the return leg in Dublin. The huge air of optimism around the Parken stadium emanated from a sense that the Danes have more options. Because of that, they faced the obligation to play with enough imagination and skill to break down the straightforward obstacle that Ireland present. On the scoreboard, they failed to do that, and the Danes were implicit in the blame for what was – for neutrals and supporters alike – a tortuous game of football to watch. But Hareide reacted tetchily when it was put to him that the game had been a poor reflection on international football.
“I don’t know what you expect from international football. What was the problem?” he said at the beginning of a testy exchange in the post-match media conference.
“You don’t think it was a poor game?” he was asked, not unreasonably.
“No. I wouldn’t say it was a poor game. We created chances. It is okay to have chances in a game? We had the ball 65 per cent. We played well enough to win. If we play like this in Dublin we will win. You can say what you want about football. That’s your choice. I have my opinion, okay. Very good!”
But his tetchiness was a reaction to the mounting pressure rather than the questions. Hareide had heard the Danish public booing in disappointment as his team left the pitch. Maybe they were objecting to the totalitarian defensive attitude of the Irish. Maybe they were showing their disapproval of their own team’s approach. But all of Denmark had thought it a poor game, because it was.
Denmark can read the current state of play however they choose. It’s true that stealing an away goal in Dublin, particularly if they score first, would leave Martin O’Neill’s team in a precarious position. But if Denmark couldn’t manage a goal in front of their home crowd, why should they expect it to be any easier when they to Dublin? It’s not as if O’Neill is going to instruct his team to go out and play with abandon. The Danish forecast of more room with which to play may be wishful thinking, as their creator-in-chief Christian Eriksen acknowledged late on Saturday night.
“They played the same style through all of qualification so I don’t think that it will change much on Tuesday. At home, they might be a bit more adventurous with the fans at their back but I don’t think that it will change too much. They will be scared of us scoring a goal and that would be a big hit. The first goal is very important.”
If Saturday night’s claustrophobic exchanges are anything to go by, the first goal may be the only goal. Not making a mistake will be the first priority for both teams. And a slow, dreary march, with either side unable to crack the other, may be in store for those tuning in. In the end, this draining qualifying campaign, defined by limitless Irish tenacity, may come down to the gripping lottery of a penalty shoot-out. That may be the only way to convince these teams to go and score a goal.