Monday 16 July 2018

Stephen Hunt: Six key figures will decide Ireland's playoff

Long could be key player for Ireland but Danes have threats too, especially in attack

Kasper Schmeichel. Photo: Getty Images
Kasper Schmeichel. Photo: Getty Images
Stephen Hunt

Stephen Hunt

These are the six figures who I think will be key to the outcome of next week's play-offs . . .

Nicklas Bendtner

It would be a major mistake to treat him as a laughing stock because he had a couple of dodgy seasons at Arsenal and didn't do so well at Juventus, Sunderland or Nottingham Forest. Bendtner has popped up again at Rosenborg in Norway and he has had a very good season. They are about to win their league and he has scored 17 goals in 26 appearances.

Of course I am not saying that the Norwegian league is the strongest, but Bendtner has obviously found a level and he is only 29. He will relish the prospect of a Premier League-style battle against the Irish defenders.

Kasper Dolberg

Watching the clips this week, the Danish player who has really impressed me is Ajax forward Kasper Dolberg who has scored once in four appearances for his country and 28 more for his club, Ajax, despite being just 20.

With the Eredivisie games being shown live on Sky, I am hopeful a few of our lads will do their homework and take in Ajax's game at home to Utrecht today because Dolberg is the type of player who can slip under the radar.

You sometimes look at videos of teams and think you are only being shown the good bits. I could put a video of Andorra together and make them look like world-beaters. But in his case, the clips are of a very high standard.

If Dolberg plays, he is going to be a problem because he is not a physical player who is going to get involved in a battle with our centre-backs but he is a real livewire in and outside of the penalty area.

When the ball goes into the box, he comes alive and scores goals with finesse and style. He doesn't get many scrappy ones, is capable of all sorts of finishes and he's very clinical in one-on-one situations. He is definitely one to look out for. He's so cool, he's like an ice machine.

Christian Eriksen

Needs no introduction. We all know this guy has the ability to win the game for Denmark and, although Real Madrid were embarrassing at Wembley and it was one of their least impressive performances in a decade, judging by Eriksen's contribution the other night, he is in great shape.

And if you saw his interview after the game, you will know that he doesn't get carried away. He is typical of the Scandinavian player who remains calm and collected under any situation. He doesn't get too carried away whether winning or losing, just goes out and does his job.

Although he is a special player, I don't think we will man-mark him. It comes down to spatial awareness and communication between the players because he will drift out wide, he will come inside, he will play off the strikers.

If you man-mark him, you could find yourself on the halfway line going for a drink with him. We are talking about international footballers.

They should see danger without having to go man-to-man.

Kasper Schmeichel

An exceptional 'keeper who has done brilliantly in his career, considering the pressure he has had to deal following his famous father. Obviously winning the Premier League with Leicester is the high point of his career so far and I wonder if he could move to a top club.

He is very good in one-on-ones, so if I was a striker I'd be looking to try something different in those situations and he can kick the ball a mile, as well as use it intelligently with his throws.

Shane Long

If he is fit, Shane should start in Copenhagen and it won't bother him or Martin O'Neill that he has not scored this season. He doesn't need any sympathy but he needs the love from the supporters. He feeds off the crowd and you could feel the tension and the anxiety in the Aviva Stadium when he missed those chances against Moldova.

Daryl Murphy definitely put himself into contention for a start against Denmark with his performance in Wales but I think, with his pace and ability to get in behind their defence, Shane coming back into the side is the obvious move.

There were a lot of good memories created in Wales and that is the performance we will be looking for again in another lively, hostile atmosphere. I expect a Wales-type performance in the first game. We have to be respectful of their strengths, keep it tight and bring it back to the Aviva.

Martin O'Neill

The Ireland manager has some key decisions to make and I am sure he is already thinking of leaving Wes Hoolahan on the bench for the first leg, and bringing him back into the side for the second.

You can have all the badges in the world, you can tell players their best positions, where they will see danger but sometimes, for occasions such as this, the manager's man-management skills can make the real difference. I think we have a good chance of winning out in Denmark. It will be cagey, because we know we have the home leg to come, but our discipline is going to be absolutely crucial, as it proved in Cardiff.

The key to our success under O'Neill has been how hard-working and organised we are. It will be about keeping our shape, every man doing his job, getting the first touch right, not giving away fouls in dangerous areas, the full-backs keeping possession, the centre-backs winning headers when they can, and not trying to dominate every ball.

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