A brutal kind of failure as Ireland fall to pieces
Ireland 1-5 Denmark (Denmark win 5-1 on agg)
Irish football's long winter of regret starts this morning.
What could have been the greatest Dublin night descended into a contender for one of the worst.
If the path to here was defined by brutal efficiency, this was a brutal kind of failure. The brilliance of Christian Eriksen, a genuine superstar, sealed Ireland's fate.
But in a game that was billed as the type of affair where the first goal would be vital, the hosts managed to get that and still ended up suffering a dreadful humiliation.
They wound up as a shapeless mess, devoid of all the characteristics that brought them to the brink of Russia.
Too often, Irish football's state-of-the-nation debates revolve around the manager when problems run deeper than that.
In the dying stages of this horror show, Martin O'Neill had four thirtysomethings deployed in attack and they were probably the best options available.
Don't lose sight of that. When senior members of this group start to retire, as is expected, attention will shine on the production line.
But for a manager who prides himself on organisation, this was an abomination. Ireland lost their way in a spectacular fashion; a routine set-piece let Denmark into the game and when that concession was swiftly followed by another, there was no coherent plan to launch a retrieval mission.
The leap from conservative to cavalier exposed deficiencies. Ireland simply didn't know what they were doing. O'Neill's old pal Age Hareide added insult to injury by suggesting that his switch to a diamond formation made things easier for his side and for hat-trick hero Eriksen.
In the painful post-mortem that will follow, O'Neill will battle revisionism and will counter that Ireland were the only fourth seeds to reach the play-offs. That will be the go-to point if any fresh questions are raised about his future and the new contract which still hasn't been signed.
He indicated that he expects to stay in tetchy post-match exchanges. Regrettably, the emphatic nature of this defeat diminishes the status of the great wins in Vienna and Cardiff because this is a campaign that will forever be a case of what could have been.
Two games with Denmark to reach a World Cup is the most attractive route that has been presented to a generation.
Hareide's men were better than they showed in Copenhagen, much more technically assured when they were allowed to breathe, but Irish disorganisation helped them along.
A significant rebuilding job beckons. The next competitive game will be the start of the new UEFA Nations League next September, a new addition to the calendar that be a hard sell because the relevance of the games will only become clear a year later.
The Euro 2020 qualifiers proper do not start until March 2019. That's a 16-month window where it will be a struggle for the FAI to sell tickets and generate a buzz that is remotely comparable to the atmosphere around Ballsbridge in the hours before kick-off last night - and when Shane Duffy headed Ireland into a fifth-minute lead.
The journey from heaven to hell lasted less than half an hour. David Meyler's selection ahead of Callum O'Dowda was the only change but the formation was altered with James McClean sent in as a second striker next to Daryl Murphy in the diamond although it was closer to a 4-1-3-2 for spells with Jeff Hendrick unable to really press forward.
It shone for six minutes, albeit with the help of a comical Danish error. A halfway line free for a foul on Murphy struck gold when Nicolai Jorgensen's swipe assisted a headed goal for Shane Duffy.
The break was not seized upon. Denmark were fluid and sharper in possession which opened space on the flanks. Brady and Meyler, who were left and right of the diamond respectively, were sucked infield chasing the ball.
Irish full-backs were exposed and Cyrus Christie really struggled. Pressure forced chances with Randolph saving from William Kvist and Pione Sisto. The signs were ominous.
But there was a brief window where Ireland could have taken the decisive step to Russia.
There was passing and movement and chances. Murphy flicked a Christie cross into the side netting and then came another passage that culminated with slick interchange and McClean drilling inches wide.
"We needed that to go in and give us a strong foothold," said O'Neill.
Yet it was the simple things that killed Ireland; O'Neill admitted as much. The demise started with a short corner, with Harry Arter on his own as Denmark rolled the ball into play and then nutmegged by the skilful Sisto who sent a cross that was scuffed goalwards by the recalled Andreas Christensen and helped over the line by Christie clumsiness.
The real killer was that Ireland conceded another goal before they had even recovered from the first. Stephen Ward was caught in possession - ironically from the kind of situation where he had punted the ball on Saturday - and his attempt to take the ball away from Yussuf Poulsen was unsuccessful.
The error will live in the memory because of how the interception was utilised, with Jorgensen atoning for his early woe by teeing up Christian Eriksen who produced a moment befitting of his status to angle the ball into its intended destination via the underside of the crossbar. Danish elation was matched by Irish deflation.
O'Neill rolled the dice at the interval, there was no other option. An extremely bold call was made to bring in both Wes Hoolahan and Aiden McGeady with Meyler and Arter sacrificed. Hoolahan was thrust next to Murphy, and we were now a world away from the away leg.
"The goals knocked us for six, very, very poor goals," said O'Neill. "It turned the tide. We made a couple of changes and as we tried to press, Denmark took advantage."
The manager said that the changes affected his side physically, but positionally they were all over the shop.
Denmark had oceans of space to exploit and what happened next was inevitable. Eriksen was liberated and it was unclear who had responsibility to track his runs with Brady and Hendrick lost in a reshaped midfield
Eriksen slid between the lines to curl a superb effort beyond Randolph. Ward, who was switched to the centre when Clark was withdrawn to make way for Shane Long - with Brady moved to left-back - then lost his footing to allow the 25-year-old claim the match ball with a powerful right-footer.
Fans streamed for the exits as the dying stages, which were supposed to be filled with tension, were a shambolic irrelevance. Nicklas Bendtner came in for the lap of honour and was felled by McClean, quickly dusting himself down to smash home a penalty past Randolph.
The Irish 'keeper conceded five and didn't play badly. That could be the one-line match report for a night to forget.