Tuesday 21 November 2017

No excuses as Ireland are played off the park

Christian Eriksen celebrates after scoring his second goal. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Christian Eriksen celebrates after scoring his second goal. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

The dying cliche that Ireland are the oppressed romantics of international football was, surely, finally extinguished last night.

Put it this way. Our assumption that Christian Eriksen might come to Dublin, furtive as a cat-burglar eyeing a sky-light was innocent in the extreme. His every step here might as well have been tracked by klieg lights, so stealth was never open to him. Yet Eriksen brought his goal tally in these World Cup qualifiers to 11, just two short of Ireland's total.

Do you think the right team is going to Russia?

So they left us to our sorrow, pinned-down realism supplanting innocence. And the sounds of the evening slowly softened.

It had begun with cries, prayers, shrieks, pockets of silence that almost hissed. A Dublin night when every minute felt pregnant with possibility and terror. A pipe-band had accompanied the singing of Amhran na bhFiann and, when the Heavens opened just before kick-off, there was the sense of something Biblical looming.

Confirmation arrived five minutes later when Duffy beat Kasper Schmeichel to a horribly skewed defensive intervention, his header looping home in the gentlest parabola.

Lansdowne convulsed. The presumption of a tentative opening had given way to something ungovernable and unhinged. As the silver bowl swayed, Age Hareide looked like a lawyer whose briefcase had burst open in a gale.

For both sides, stalemate would have offered a certain gentle comfort. If nobody scored, nobody was forced to chase. But Duffy's goal blew everything sky-high. Areide's notes were now confetti.

Trouble was, it forced the issue too. Suddenly, Denmark understood that patience could carry them only so far. They came now with heightened energy and, twice inside two minutes, Darren Randolph saved brilliantly from William Kvist and Pione Sisto.

The game was more open than Martin O'Neill would have chosen. True, that openness almost brought a second Irish goal, Daryl Murphy improvising brilliantly to glance a Cyrus Christie cross into the side-netting.

But the stitches of this contest had come undone. Discipline and structure lay in a puddle on the field.

Undress

Then, those two Danish goals arrived inside three minutes. Easy goals. First, Sisto nutmegged Harry Arter to undress our entire back line with a trickled cross that Christie bundled over his own line. Then Stephen Ward giving away possession and the Danes' sublime counter-attack ended with Eriksen's impressive finish.

All the tumult undone by a couple of moments when Irish players blinked.

O'Neill's exasperation with how his team gets portrayed is seldom less than tangible. He radiates the prickliness of an English teacher explaining basic grammar to a slow classroom.

Grumbles about our football being like something from the last century leave him shaking his head, reminding us how little joy gets scavenged from elegant failure.

Trouble is, pundits feel compelled to say something portentous off the field when little enough is happening on it.

Hence we have this perpetual national football debate about aesthetics.

But what exactly is at the core of it? A real conviction that we should be offended by prohibition on forward passing of anything shorter than 40 metres or a reflex bow to the nursery-rhyme fancies of some frown with a pen in a TV studio?

If anything, last night's early Irish goal opened this game in a way that wasn't in our interests. It ended any appetite for poker. We hear endlessly that the team should play more football but, against better, more technical sides, to what end exactly?

The stuff that irks O'Neill is no different to the stuff that irked Giovanni Trapattoni before him or, for that matter, just about any Irish manager since team selection was at the whim of a five-man FAI committee. Apparently, we want to be seen as imaginative, contemporary, beautiful.

Yet, nature remains organically resistent to the national grá for players who can communicate those virtues.

Just look at our Wes fetish. What must the Danes have made of so much pre-match conjecture focusing upon whether or not O'Neill might pick a 35-year-old midfielder who can't get a regular game in the Championship?

If anything sums up our capacity to see only what we want to see, the virtual deification of Hoolahan delivers it in shorthand.

True, Hoolahan has a fine skill-set and isn't spooked by receipt of the ball in tight corners. In the vernacular of the game, he 'can see a pass'.

But last night was about wrapping Irish aggression around the occasion like a strait-jacket and, essentially, testing the Danes' appetite for a fight. That's not Hoolahan's game. He was never going to start.

Of course, those Danish goals made his introduction certain. For O'Neill's men were now trapeze artists looking down at a cold marble floor.

No ambiguity to what they had to do. No safety net below. They had to find a level of expression we knew simply was not in them.

So Hoolahan and Aiden McGeady came in and Ireland went chasing a fairytale. Soon enough, two more Eriksen goals had taken the game into a place we could no longer reach. Irish hope amounted to a guttering candle.

Just before the close, Nicklas Bendtner fired home a penalty to seal the deal on humiliation, running to the Danish supporters after in a celebration that even his team-mates could not quite find the stomach to share.

And O'Neill?

He stood on the tramline, arms folded, lips pursed, just yards from Hareide, his old team-mates now standing with hands in pockets.

A valid criticism of the Irish manager might be the glaring absence of any conspicuous philosophy. The sense of him ad-libbing his way through nights like this. What style does he aspire this team to play to? Four years into his tenure, the truth is we could not tell you

Anecdotally, his strength seems more that of a psychologist than a tactician. In other words, his plans aren't governed by detail. He, reputedly, keeps directions to something that could be scribbled on an envelope. His way seems to be to empower, not overload.

Still, last night, none of that really mattered.

Ireland came up against a team that technically, philosophically, tactically just had far too much for them. Pure and simple, we were played off the park. The right team is heading for Putin-land.

Irish Independent

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