Saturday 15 December 2018

O'Neill's caution keeps team on road to nowhere

 

Kevin Long attempts to block the effort of Christian Eriksen during the draw in Aarhus last night. Photo: BO AMSTRUP/AFP/Getty Images
Kevin Long attempts to block the effort of Christian Eriksen during the draw in Aarhus last night. Photo: BO AMSTRUP/AFP/Getty Images
David Kelly

By David Kelly

Irish visitors to Aarhus this week will have missed the opportunity to visit one of the city's most popular summer tourist attractions.

"The infinite bridge" is a sea sculpture, circular in shape, upon which people can walk endlessly in circles but, as the architects clunkily explain, always connecting with each other and experiencing different perspectives and emotions.

Kevin Long and Denmark's Mathias Joergensen clash in an aerial duel. Photo: BO AMSTRUP/AFP/Getty Images
Kevin Long and Denmark's Mathias Joergensen clash in an aerial duel. Photo: BO AMSTRUP/AFP/Getty Images

Now closed for the winter, perhaps the visiting punters shouldn't have worried too much.

After all, witnessing the Irish international side in recent times has often seemed like something similar, an endless loop of ever-decreasing circles.

A team, it appears, on a road to nowhere.

Nestling beside the Marselisborg forest, the quaint, claustrophobic Ceres stadium represented an unlikely stage for a rousing resurgence from the deadening doom that has hung over Martin O'Neill's men like a fog for some time now.

Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane calling the shots in the warm-up. Photo: Reuters/Matthew Childs
Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane calling the shots in the warm-up. Photo: Reuters/Matthew Childs

As one wit acerbically put it, given all the manager's constant reminders of his former eminence, it would have seemed grimly symbolic should the seeds of his international demise be scattered so close to a forest.

Cyrus Christie - his brief reprieve from the Irish midfield over after missing out against our northern cousins last Thursday - was restored to the line-up and on two occasions, in the early moments, his familiar unease when being asked to lift his head and play cost his side possession and, dangerously, a scoring chance too.

He did settle, though; and Ireland did too, momentarily at least.

It often seems more suitable for them to adopt a pattern when the game has none; their difficulty is in maintaining it to any meaningful degree.

So they flicker, briefly, either at the very beginning, when they are unable to make a definitive statement to back up a flurry of good intentions; or at the end, when they are usually chasing forlornly with wilful abandon.

There was early promise, structured support for players on the ball and Aiden O'Brien, for a brief period, was not yet being forced into an impression of a footballing Man Friday.

It couldn't last. It didn't.

Despite Enda Stevens' threatening early raids, the Danes soon scavenged in the wide spaces of Ireland's 3-5-2 as the visitors' passing pattern faltered.

Ireland funnelled well to close the middle and dealt with most aerial assaults when the Danes crossed from right and left but eventually even the centre could not hold.

With no wingers, and Christie unsuited to receiving the ball on his side of the pitch, Ireland's difficulties multiplied. Mostly, they went long which could have been effective with support for O'Brien, or if the ball had't been played after a 30-second necklace of harmless passes across the back three - Robbie Brady, Christie and Jeff Hendrick loitering without intent.

There were isolated threats but they were mostly muffled.

At one stage, Robbie Brady thieved a ball in the tackle but he was still in his own half; attempting a triangle with his school pal Hendrick, Brady placed the third pass into touch.

O'Neill watched the errant orb roll pitifully beyond him.

Later, Kevin Long strode forward with purpose, reaching half-way; he had choices, two of them; short inside to the right or short outside to the left wing.

O'Neill seemed to point the way too; Long discovered a third way, O'Brien making a clever diagonal run.

The ball didn't reach him but it was notable that Ireland had passing options; this now represents a high watermark of achievement.

The Danes painted pretty pictures; Ireland's efforts mimicked the scrawl of a child's crayon. Christian Eriksen departed after an efficient 45 minutes and a free-kick that shaved Darren Randolph's bar but he wasn't his team's key influence; that was Lasse Schone from Ajax, who ran the show.

The second half indicated no shift in pattern; it as if the interval does not exist when Ireland play, so minimal are the effects of a any dressing-room instructions.

Perhaps he had, as he had said repeatedly the previous day, just told them to "be more creative".

Ireland's defensive resilience brooked little argument; they are getting plenty of practice.

Michael Obafemi came on for his much-touted debut; at one stage retreating to his own box as Ireland defended a free-kick.

Denmark's humiliation of Ireland in Dublin last year has had such a jarring effect on all involved, it is as if the squad and all connected to it are trapped in amber.

Ten years ago, Shane Long and Robbie Keane each scored twice here in a 4-0 win but Steve Staunton would soon be gone.

This time, despite no goals in the last 396 minutes, the painful goodbye looks like being a very long one. And so we hope for a play-off in March 2020. Another 16 months of this.

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