Monday 16 July 2018

Comment: Kind draw will show if Ireland deserve to make Russia

Play-off scenario is one Martin O'Neill would have accepted at the start of World Cup race

Ireland manager Martin O'Neill before the draw. Photo: Reuters
Ireland manager Martin O'Neill before the draw. Photo: Reuters
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Two games with Denmark to make a World Cup. For Martin O'Neill's Ireland, it is a fair and attractive test.

If they are worthy of a place in Russia, then it's the kind of tie which should not intimidate them. Denmark are the seeded side, and worthy favourites, yet when Switzerland were drawn out first to play Northern Ireland things were looking hairy for the Irish delegation.

When Croatia were pulled out, it was down to a straight choice between Italy and Denmark.

Placed in that context, the feeling of relief when ex-Spanish captain Fernando Hierro picked Ireland out of the drum for a trip to Scandinavia is understandable. That was the result the FAI employees in Zurich wanted.

Sky Sports' decision to go to Middlesbrough and get the reaction of Darren Randolph and Cyrus Christie opened a window into the dressing-room view. Randolph's grin said it all.

At FIFA HQ, O'Neill and Roy Keane were satisfied with how events unfolded.

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

"You looked at the draw, and you're thinking of trying to avoid Italy as their record in World Cups is sensational," said the Irish boss afterwards.

"I don't think any of the coaches of the unseeded teams wanted to play Italy. Having said that, Croatia are a star-studded side as well too. And you have to take what you get."

The Danes were keen to avoid Sweden, the other remaining unseeded option when the Irish delegation moved to the edge of their seat, so they were content enough too, although public reaction in their neck of the woods has lacked a comparable level of jubilation.

Preferred

They would have preferred the lesser known players of Northern Ireland in their ideal-world scenario. Ireland were a middle-of-the-road option and maybe this will be a middle-of-the-road tie. That's no bad thing.

Perhaps this could be the draw to change the Irish relationship with the play-off. Trepidation tends to be the default setting, even though we are looking for a third win in a row after the European Championship victories over Estonia and Bosnia.

This will be Ireland's seventh two-legged decider in the space of 20 years and another positive trend here is that the defeats - Belgium (1997), Turkey (1999) and France (2009) - all came when the second match was played away from home.

Mick McCarthy's trip to Iran with a two-goal lead in 2001 is the only time an Irish team has triumphed by kicking things off on their own patch.

The flip side of that is that O'Neill's side have performed much better on their travels in this particular campaign. Clearly, the plan now is to produce another performance to tee up a night to remember in Ballsbridge; the most complete 90-minute display under O'Neill was arguably the home leg against the Bosnians following the 1-1 draw in Zenica. "Robbie Brady gave us the dream away goal that helped us immensely," he said. "We have to stay in the match until we get to Dublin."

Denmark are a handy side away from home, though. They did lose to eventual Group E winners Poland away at the start of their qualification tilt but it was a subsequent home loss to Montenegro that really left them in bother.

In the autumn, they did thrash Poland 4-0 at the Parken Stadium, in what was a must-win game for the hosts. Crucially, they followed it up with road victories in Armenia and Montenegro to book their play-off passage.

Not surprisingly, Christian Eriksen was prominent. O'Neill quickly identified the Spurs player as the mastermind, and the fact he has ventured forward to score a goal in each of their last five competitive matches is informative.

He has also been helped by Thomas Delaney of Werder Bremen, a player who really sounds like he should be playing for Ireland. Back in 2011, he was a cub at FC Copenhagen when they took on Shamrock Rovers and explained that his connection with Ireland went back to the 18th century.

His ancestors moved to America and a branch then split off to Scandinavia. It would be sickening for John Delaney - whose association could really do with the financial benefits of qualification - if a namesake undid things.

Denmark have a mix of promising youths and experience in the rest of their squad. Nicklas Bendtner, who didn't set the world alight for Rosenborg against Dundalk in the summer, was called back into starting duty in October.

However, Feyenoord striker Nicolai Jorgensen is first choice when fit and was the Dutch league's top scorer last term.

Kasper Schmeichel is a familiar presence in goals and Sevilla's Simon Kjaer is a sturdy centre-back. Andreas Christiansen (Chelsea), Mathias Jorgensen (Huddersfield) and Henrik Dalsgaard (Brentford) are defensive options.

On paper, they would appear to have more strength in depth than the Bosnian outfit which Irish supporters were obsessing about when French hopes lay on the line. But there are parallels too in the sense that the real key is neutralising the outstanding danger men - in that case it was Pjanic and Dzeko. This time, it's Eriksen.

Their manager Age Hareide is an old club colleague of O'Neill and a wily campaigner who has made a career moving around Scandinavia. "It will be a tough fight," said Hareide, who opted not to make the trip, but cut straight to the point in a social media message issued by his employers.

O'Neill will give him that. Ireland are outsiders, but in the space of a few short weeks, a summer in Russia is by no means a long shot.

Irish Independent

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