McCarthy targets draw as Ireland brace for Denmark once again

Ireland’s ability to cope with Denmark’s midfield, not just its standout star, is key

The Irish team slipped pretty much unnoticed in and out of the Parken Stadium on Thursday evening with more local interest, it seemed, in registering for a charity 10k, the Royal Run, to be staged in honour of Denmark’s Crown Prince Frederik. Mick McCarthy’s ambitions for his team this evening might be best summed up, in the circumstances, as avoiding another royal runaround from the Danish game’s undisputed king.

Christian Eriksen certainly continued to cast a shadow over the build-up with the home side's coach, Åge Hareide, asked by hopeful Irish journalists whether he thinks the 27-year-old midfielder might still be suffering from a debilitating case of disappointment after Tottenham's Champions League defeat or, perhaps, struggling with the distraction of a rumoured move to Madrid.

Hareide, predictably, seemed mildly entertained by all of the Irish concern.

Séamus Coleman suggested the Irish obsession with Denmark generally is all just a little overblown with the team captain pointing out that most of the recent encounters between the two sides have been rather disappointing draws. The 5-1 defeat in Dublin 18 months ago was, however, one hell of an exception.

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The Danes, as it happens, though, have been held to quite a few draws over the last couple of years, nine in their last 16 games, and McCarthy made no bones whatsoever about the fact that making that 10 in 17 would be enough to have him getting on to the flight for home a very happy man.

Disappointment

The approach, he says, will be positive and the team, he has repeatedly hinted, much the same as the one that played rather well despite only beating Georgia by a goal in March.

There was an open acknowledgement here, however, that the Danes are a "different proposition" and it would not take an awful lot to go wrong for Ireland on the night for this game to end in another disappointment.

His players give off the very strong sense that they have had some of the confidence beaten out of them over the course of a very difficult 2018 restored by the two qualifying wins a couple of months back but Hareide’s tone when asked if six points from six at this stage of the campaign has forced him into any sort of reassessment said a good deal about the significance he attaches to those victories.

It is still, he contended, a battle between three teams for two places before pointing to Denmark’s draw in Basel as having been of rather more importance in the grand scheme of things.

It would be a hard point to argue with the 65-year-old. By Monday evening, McCarthy’s men will have played three of their four most winnable games in this group and assuming they do not somehow slip up against Gibraltar on home turf, it is tonight’s game and tonight’s game only that will be seen as really defining where they stand as they go into the summer.

There was the usual talk about the need to retain the ball a bit better so as to avoid a build-up of pressure and after some signs of real improvement last time out, there is clearly genuine hope that this can be achieved.

‘Evil spirit’

Ireland's ability to cope with Denmark's entire midfield, not just its standout star, will be of critical importance to how things turn out, though, and much, it seems, may hinge on McCarthy's decision to hand the key holding role to Glenn Whelan, a player Martin O'Neill clearly felt was no longer of the required standard for this sort of occasion.

Hold their own there, where Conor Hourihane and Jeff Hendrick seemed suddenly to look far more comfortable against the Georgians, and Ireland should certainly be in with a shout of achieving a result that might genuinely impact on the final group table. It is still a lot to have riding on a 35-year-old coming off the back of a tough campaign in the Championship.

Writing him entirely off certainly looked hasty when O’Neill had Cyrus Christie playing in central midfield and if the Dubliner comes into this game still believing he has a point to prove then what a time this would be to prove it.

More widely, McCarthy found himself playing down the notion that the hosts here are some sort of “evil spirit”, as a local reporter put it, for his side although he acknowledged they are a “very good team”, and that in Eriksen they possess “a player who would grace any side in the world”.

If Ireland do have their ever so slightly restored sense of momentum knocked out of them this evening, though, landing the Danes in this group again is bound to feel a curse. Whatever happens, McCarthy is sure to point out that there is a lot of race still to run but how sweet it would feel for Ireland to have their rivals behind them at the half-way point.

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone is an Assistant News Editor at The Irish Times