Friday 17 November 2017

John Aldridge - Irish players should use stinging criticism of Copenhagen display to drive them to World Cup

Read John Aldridge every week in The Herald

John Aldridge

Ireland's management and players have been heavily criticised after their performance in Denmark on Saturday night, but all that will be forgotten if we get the right result tonight.

Let’s be honest, the 0-0 draw in Copenhagen was not a sporting spectacle anyone would want to experience again. It was pretty dreadful from first to last.

Both teams contributed to a woeful game that saw the players on show unable to handle the pressure of a game that had the biggest of prizes up for grabs for the winner.

We saw two tentative teams that couldn’t express themselves and while it was horrible to watch, this kind of match has become the norm in international football.

When I was playing in the Ireland team that qualified for the 1990 and 1994 World Cup finals, we relished the challenge of playing big games for our country and trying to put a few smiles on the faces of our fans.

I’m sure the Ireland players who will take to the field in Dublin tonight have the same ambition, but they seem to struggle to play to the level we know they are capable of under pressure.

The Irish lads we see in the Premier League every week can keep hold of the ball better than they do when they are playing for Ireland, so we have to hope they show that in the second leg this evening.

Martin O’Neill’s squad will be presented with the biggest opportunities of their careers tonight, as they are just 90 minutes away from a place in the World Cup finals.

I can tell them from personal experience that for all the negativity around international football these days, there is nothing better than playing for your country in the biggest competition of them all.

All these years on, people still want to talk to me about our great run to the quarter-finals of Italia’90 and the wonderful win we had against Italy at the Giants Stadium at USA’94 and I’ll never grow tired of looking back on it.

When your career comes to an end, you want to be able to say you played in a World Cup and for the Ireland lads in the squad tonight, this may be their one and only chance to snatch that moment.

Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane will be reminding the players what is at stake, but they will not need to be told. We all know what it would mean to see Ireland back in a World Cup and we are so, so close now.

I expect we will see a better game in this second match, with both teams needing to look for goals and needing to open up a little more than they did in the first leg.

If Denmark score first, our lads should not panic as we are capable of scoring twice if we play with a little more freedom and it will come down to who takes the fleeting chances that come along.

In our favour is a rock solid defence, with keeper Darren Randolph doing a good job for us over the last couple of years and Shane Duffy continuing to impress in the heart of the defence.

Denmark will struggle to unlock that fine Irish backline if we stick to what we are good at, but we also need to show a little more in the final third and I hope James McClean and Robbie Brady can be the men to open the door for us.

Brady’s set-piece delivery was a little disappointing in Copenhagen and McClean didn’t make enough of those powerful bursts forward on the flank, so we need both to improve.

I’d play Shane Long up front despite his lack of goals in recent months and while we can’t abandon our team structure and just go for it, we do want to see a team that looks like they want to go for goals tonight.

While it is unlikely to be the most technically impressive football match we will see this season, it might well be the most tension-fuelled and I hope our magnificent support will play a part in getting us over the line.

The criticism flowing in the direction of the Ireland players in recent days will have strung, so I’d encourage the players to use that as motivation to get a victory that will spark wild celebrations across Ireland.

One or two of the Ireland players have a chance to turn themselves into heroes forever more tonight and I know if I was in that squad now, I’d be desperate to make sure I was the one who snatched that opportunity.

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