Nations League: Denmark v Republic of Ireland
Aarhus, Monday, 7.45pm, Sky Sports
A decade after Steve Staunton’s side came here and stunned the Danes by securing a 4-0 win, Martin O’Neill could really do with a similar sort of lift. The prospect a big win seems about as likely now as it did back then but the current manager says he would settle for a little more creativity and a few chances on goal. It is quite some time since expectations were this low.
Age Hareide spoke about how quickly that can change in football but Ireland are arguably in worse shape now than they were then with O’Neill’s wider career achievements and his undiminished faith in his own ability to turn things around a big part of the reason why he is not in greater peril after a run of just one win in 10 games and three without even a goal.
The Danes, by contrast, come into this game having lost just one in 24 over 90 minutes and that solitary defeat was in a game when they were obliged to field a side of semi-professionals. On Friday, they wrapped up top spot in this Nations League group with a 2-1 win in Wales. Given the convoluted nature of the competition Ireland could still scrape a play-off, especially if they can get a result here, but O'Neill made it clear that his priority is to see an improvement rather than look that far ahead.
‘Not much to say’
“There is not much to say,” said manager Hareide of his own team’s position at a sparsely attended press conference conducted entirely through English for the benefit of the visiting reporters. “The group is finished the top is done. We are top of the group and now this is a game to play to get better.”
The Norwegian, it seems to say then, is pretty happy with his lot although he and his players have, to be fair, earned their fat cigars.
O’Neill, on the other hand, currently seems to be sporting an exploding one but he received some sympathy for his old friend, who recalled the tail end of his time in charge of Norway when he went eight games without a win before resigning. “It’s so tight. Sometimes you get a series of bad results and when you are the coach you are desperate to change that. But in international football there are not so many games or enough training to try to improve the team.
“It is difficult but what keeps you going through the bad times is thinking about getting back to the good times again and I know Martin will be working very hard to make that happen.”
O'Neill, who is missing the suspended James McClean, must be relieved that Hareide is without key players. Kasper Schmeichel and Thomas Delaney are both suspended while the Danish captain, Simon Kjaer, is injured but the Irish manager has plenty of other issues to deal with, not least how his side might generate that greater attacking threat without the players leaving themselves open to another Christian Eriksen spectacular.
O’Neill’s options are limited in terms of improving things and having spoken of the defensive solidity that playing three at the back has provided, he is unlikely to change the tactics so as to get a second striker in. That may well mean looking to Callum O’Dowda to provide support to a lone one again. It is a big ask of the Bristol City midfielder who has looked ordinary enough when put up against a better class of defender.
Enda Stevens has limited experience of playing at this level too but given the importance of Robbie Brady to the attacking side of things in midfield, the Sheffield United left back looks set to get a start here.
Both the manager and his captain talked, in any case, about how the players had been inspired by watching Ireland beat the All Blacks on Saturday evening and while that win and the celebrations that have followed must have been a reminder in a way of just how far the football team has fallen of late, O’Neill was adamant they can get back to where they were a little over a year ago. First, he said, though, “We must just try to get back to winning ways if we can. That would be important.”
Denmark: Ronnow (Eintracht Frankfurt); Ankersen (Copenhagen), Jorgensen (Huddersfield), Bjelland (Copenhagen), Knudsen (Ipswich Town); Hojbjerg (Southampton), Schone (Ajax), Eriksen (Tottenham); Poulsen (Leipzig), Jorgensen (Feyenoord), Braithwaite (Middlesbrough).
Republic of Ireland: Randolph (Middlesbrough); Keogh (Derby), Duffy (Brighton), Long (Burnley); Coleman (Everton), Hendrick (Burnley), Arter (Cardiff City), Brady (Burnley), Stevens (Sheffield United); O'Dowda (Bristol City); Robinson (Preston).
Referee: Aliyar Aghayev (AZE)