Randolph’s fingers the only things warmed up in Copenhagen
Fireworks before the kick-off were not matched at the Parken stadium
Republic of Ireland goalkeeper Darren Randolph with kit man Dick Redmond after the World Cup playoff first leg against Denmark at the the Parken stadium. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Watching Ireland can leave you cold. The Danes know that now.
A crisp and beautiful night in Copenhagen seemed to drop a few degrees over another 90 minutes of outright stubbornness from Ireland as the Danish team, free-scoring and rampantly confident over the last few months, just got lost in the fog of industry and combativeness that has taken Martin O’Neill’s team to this point: a chance to win in Dublin on Tuesday night for the right to go to the World Cup. On they march, in their own unique fashion.
What hope in the city just before kick-off, when this playoff began with lusty Scandinavian chants and even a display of pre-match fireworks in the groovy Parken stadium, which is half-football ground, half adventure in vertigo.
The pyrotechnics spoke of a confidence that had been building in the city all afternoon. Ciaran Clark gathered his team around him and the men in white watched the pageantry, gauged the expectation and then set about spoiling a perfectly good Saturday night in northern Europe. And nobody does that better.
For the first half hour, Ireland confined the Danes to just two gilt-edge chances, both of which occurred in the space of three seconds.
With Christian Eriksen darting about in the air-pockets of the Ireland midfield and busying both Harry Arter and Robbie Brady and sometimes both by his mere existence, Simon Kjaer delivered a perfect ball for his full back colleague Jens Stryger Larsen, who had ghosted unnoticed behind Cyrus Christie on the right. Larsen killed the ball with a striker’s deftness but then lashed a shot with a defender’s haste.
Darren Randolph parried the shot and then got across the face of his goal to deflect Andreas Cornelius’s follow-up. The Atalanta striker should have done better but that 12th minute can be added to the considerable list of vital Randolph interventions.
But around that huge moment, the Danes slowly began to run out of ideas, unable to free Eriksen in any meaningful way and discovering, like other nations before them, the limitless patience this Irish team has for the brute work of football labouring; covering, holding the line, sniping at out-and-out ball players, contesting every high ball (and ensuring there are a lot to contest).
The best Danish chance of that first half came from a rare Irish mistake: Ciaran Clarke lamped a first-time clearance which arrowed straight to Eriksen’s nimble feet; in a flash he was running at the Villa man and let fly with a right foot shot which Randolph denied with a spectacular flourish. Again though, the follow-up fell perfectly to an unmarked Danish player but Pione Sisto’s miss was criminal.
A rare Irish visit into the Danish penalty area – Christie showing a nimble touch to skip past Larsen and toe-poked a decent chance which Kaspar Schmeichel knocked away. Nothing amounted from the corner but the very fact that Ireland were the side taking the corner on the stroke of half-time was a reminder of their ability to creep into these matches, almost unnoticed. For a team often hammered for the obviousness of their characteristics, they have a subtle touch when it comes to taking control of a tie.
In all, this was unapologetic survival stuff from Ireland. Midway through the first half, Shane Duffy chipped from a long ball to absolutely nobody and then turned away with the disgust of a golfer who knows his ball is hitting the water.
A few minutes later, Arter hoofed an equally aimless ball which drew a display of hopping-anger from O’Neill on the sideline. Here, on the hour mark, were the crucial minutes: the Danish becoming mildly stressed; Roy Keane immersed in heated debate with a Fifa official; Nicolas Bendtner sent in to revive a Copenhagen crowd that had become discouraged, colder and possibly bored.
And every so often, Ireland ventured forward, improbably and usually seeking out Daryl Murphy to glance a ball on to anyone, anywhere. A dangerous ball skewed off Clark in the 67th minute just three yards from Schmeichel’s goal and a low scared murmur travelled through the ground. By now, those fireworks were a distant and irrelevant memory.
Into the last 10 minutes: 0-0 and the play becoming fractured and the Irish fans behind the Danish goal too cold – and maybe in collective shock at the price of Copenhagen lager – to give a chorus of The Fields.
Both Arter and James McClean, a marvel of industry and terrific positional play here, came dangerously close to drawing a yellow card from the lenient Milorad Mazic from the Czech Republic.
By now, the artfulness had all but seeped out of Denmark’s play. The home crowd booed an injury delay to Arter and then had to wait while he was replaced by Glenn Whelan, a clear signal from O’Neill that it was time to put on the house lights and clear the building.
The last two minutes brought a desperate burst of productivity from Age Hareide’s team, facing into a suddenly daunting trip to Dublin. Yussef Poulsen drew another exceptional reaction from Randolph with a point-blank header and the Danes pressed twice more before a despairing shot-to-nothing by Larsen flew over the Ireland crossbar and brought an end to a match which will be remembered by nobody for very long.
A long roar of frustration sounded from the Parken, a discordant note for the Danes to take with them as they pack their bags for what promises to be the real battle in Dublin. The happy band of Irish fans roved into downtown Copenhagen for the happy consolation of pricey beers and thoughts about a big Tuesday to come.