Friday 21 September 2018

Comment - Denmark ran out of ideas in the face of Shane Duffy's dominance

Shane Duffy of Republic of Ireland signals to a teammate during the FIFA 2018 World Cup Qualifier Play-off 1st Leg match between Denmark and Republic of Ireland at Parken Stadium in Copenhagen, Denmark. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Shane Duffy of Republic of Ireland signals to a teammate during the FIFA 2018 World Cup Qualifier Play-off 1st Leg match between Denmark and Republic of Ireland at Parken Stadium in Copenhagen, Denmark. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
James McClean

Eamonn Sweeney

'A lot done, a lot more to do', as the man said. Yet there can be no denying that the route to Russia has come into much sharper focus after a stalemate expertly contrived by Martin O'Neill and his players. It might have been the furthest thing imaginable from a classic match, but it was a classic away performance.

It says everything about the game that after all our worry about Christian Eriksen, it was Denmark's unsung left-back Jens Stryger Larsen who proved to be the home team's main dangerman. It was Larsen who got round the back in the 13th minute before firing in a ferocious volley which brought a fine save from Darren Randolph, who whipped in a superb cross for Yusuf Poulsen to test the keeper near the end of normal time, and who had a shot deflected wide by Cyrus Christie shortly afterwards.

Eriksen's performance, on the other hand, mirrored that of his team. There were occasional skilful moments and suggestions that he might be about to cut loose, but in the end he seemed a frustrated figure, as little able to impose his personality on the game as Gareth Bale and Zlatan Ibrahimovic had been in their jousts against O'Neill's Ireland.

Predictions that Denmark would pass their way through Ireland proved ill-founded. Instead their main weapon was a diagonal ball aimed in the direction of the wing guarded by the inexperienced pair of Cyrus Christie and Callum O'Dowda. It seemed likely to pay dividends in the first twenty minutes but both Christie and O'Dowda grew in confidence as the game went on. By the end of the first half, Christie was getting forward to have Ireland's best chance of the match, only Kasper Schmeichel's shoulder preventing the breakaway goal which would have made this a smash-and-grab raid like that perpetrated in Cardiff.

It was a full-back's kind of night. If Denmark's creativity was stifled, Ireland's was non-existent on the night. Even by our own standards the failure to string passes together in the opposition half gave cause for concern. At times it looked as though we were trying to participate in one of those tactical kicking duels beloved of rugby union.

Yet there isn't much point raining the usual criticism down on O'Neill for not enabling the kind of creative football which would have been inappropriate on the night. The mission was to come away with a result which would set things up for the second leg. That mission was accomplished and the team's ability to almost always do what is required in a particular situation means we should face into Tuesday with confidence.

The late Danish flurry seemed to have a kind of urgency behind it which suggested they felt they needed a goal on the night. The reaction of their fans added to the impression of a home conviction that they'd blown their big opportunity. Only once did things pass out of Ireland's control. It was when Eriksen's shot was parried by Randolph into the path of Pione Sisto who had most of the goal to aim at. Sisto put his shot wide and his overall performance typified Denmark. All sizzle and no steak, the Celta Vigo man was withdrawn, the latest player to find out that Ireland are much more difficult opposition than they look at first sight.

Tuesday presents a different kind of challenge, yet anyone expecting Ireland to come out with all guns blazing will be sorely disappointed. We might not be as cautious as we were last night but chances are Denmark will dominate the possession stats yet again.

Yet the key thing in Copenhagen was that while Denmark's percentage share of the ball was generally in the high sixties, the game didn't seem that one sided. This was not your Stuttgart- or Moscow-style siege, it was a more relaxed affair, a blockade perhaps rather than a bombardment. This is a team we can beat.

The old cliché is that after the first leg of a match you're just at half-time. But with home advantage to come on what should be a very emotional night and with the possibility of an extra half-hour to get the job done if needed, Ireland will have the breeze and the slope behind them in the second half.

Will it be enough? Looking at the way that Denmark ran out of ideas here, at the dominance of Duffy, the hints from McClean of what he may do with better quality ball, the sense that Ireland were exerting their will on the game as time began to run out, you feel quietly confident about our prospects. Chances are Tuesday's game won't be a thriller in the football sense either. But it will have a nation on the edge of its collective seat.

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