Tuesday 11 December 2018

'We might never get chance again' - O’Neill stresses the importance of play-off ‘opportunity’

Martin O’Neill knows the resilience of his players will be key in seeing off the challenge of Denmark. Photo: Sportsfile
Martin O’Neill knows the resilience of his players will be key in seeing off the challenge of Denmark. Photo: Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

It was an ordinary squad announcement for a tie that offers an extraordinary opportunity.

This is the sharp end of international football. Tomorrow fortnight, Ireland enter a World Cup play-off with Denmark and that window will be filled with talk of the possibilities.

Martin O'Neill didn't really have much news to impart yesterday. Seamus Coleman's absence was confirmed and Jon Walters is a long shot - his name was missing from the 34-man provisional list - while the Derryman again suggested that Roy Keane will be part of his Euro 2020 plan.

But he doesn't want to discuss his future at this point because his immediate concern is the 180 minutes that could change the course of careers and give his players a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

To call it high stakes is an understatement. The Ireland manager knows that the dressing room won't need reminding of the significance.

"I think the lads think that the World Cup is so, so important," said O'Neill. "We might never get there again, even some of the boys being so young as they are. This is an opportunity and I don't think they want to throw it up."

Strengths

Denmark are a tough opponent and their strengths will be teased out in the preliminaries. They go beyond Christian Eriksen and O'Neill was unsurprisingly very complimentary about a side managed by his former team-mate Age Hareide.

He's been watching their games and feels they have improved since they lost a Euro 2016 play-off to Sweden. Hareide has adopted a slightly more direct approach and O'Neill feels they have upped their performance in terms of physicality.

In the aftermath of the big win in Wales that gave Ireland their opportunity, the 65-year-old was understandably elated to have produced another big result to keep Russian hopes alive - he was conscious that obituaries were written after the defeat to Serbia in September.

The tone was slightly different at Three HQ. There is perhaps a sense that euphoria about avoiding Italy and Croatia needs to be tempered.

O'Neill spoke proudly about the character Ireland's players showed in Wales, and didn't disagree with the view that eventually the visitors in Cardiff broke their hosts' spirit. That may well be the plan for the play-off too. But that Welsh effort will count for nothing if the Scandinavian mission is unsuccessful.

"We had a great resilience," said O'Neill. "You have to impose your will over it and we have managed to do that. You have to set out to impose a will for yourself but also on the opposition.

"I hate talking about this now because we have the two games, we have to overcome Denmark and it won't be easy. We could get beaten in the two games and get knocked out but it won't be through lack of trying."

The Eriksen question will come up again and again in the build-up and O'Neill thinks the Spurs player has graduated into an elite tier of players in the past 12 months.

Preparing to face a side with a stand-out performer is not unusual; Zlatan Ibrahimovic was the talking point ahead of the joust with Sweden at the Euros and the Gareth Bale factor dominated discourse ahead of the scoreless draw in Dublin in March.

Both were monitored closely by the collective without a man-marking job and that appears to be the plan again.

"I think Eriksen has become as important to Denmark as Gareth Bale has to Wales and he is certainly of that ilk. He is playing exceptionally well," said O'Neill.

"My own view is that Bale is I think, if you are talking about Messi and Ronaldo being the two outstanding players in the world, then Bale is in that little group behind them that includes Hazard, Bale, Suarez, people like this here, Neymar, all of those players.

"Eriksen in the last year, both for club and country, has put himself into that sort of category. I can't pay him a much higher compliment.

"I think first of all you have to get close enough to him," continued O'Neill, in discussing how his team might deal with him. "So that's he not running the show and he's not running the show from very difficult positions for us - in other words 30 yards outside our box.

"And if we can get to the stage in either of the matches where he has to go further back to retrieve the ball then the further back he is the better for us. All of those things.

"But I've often thought this, that man-marking a top-quality player, the players do extricate themselves from these difficult positions and that's what makes them so good. It's a difficulty but we have to deal with it."

O'Neill pointed out that at this juncture two years ago, the plan for stopping Bosnia's key men Edin Dzeko and Miralem Pjanic revolved around pressing hard and narrowing space instead of individual stopping jobs.

"We didn't man-mark any of their players, we just had to close down as quickly as we could," he said.

"I think the talk out there at the time was that if we avoided Croatia or Italy you'd think we were doing alright. But I've looked at Denmark since the draw and they can play a bit."

O'Neill is likely to pare down his 34-man panel before the squad meet up on Monday week so it could be premature to announce that defenders Matt Doherty and Paul McShane have been called back into the fold.

Doherty is thriving for Wolves at right wing-back with the Portuguese influence at Molineux making them strong contenders for promotion. However, Cyrus Christie is one of the Irish players carrying a booking so it's possible that the Dubliner will be brought in for an emergency.

Shane Duffy, Ciaran Clark and Stephen Ward are also one mistimed tackle away from a ban so defensive cover might well be required.

McShane is one of the few survivors from Ireland's last World Cup play-off. This is Ireland's chance to erase the memory.

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