Monday 16 July 2018

Dublin expects a famous night

O'Neill appears relaxed as Ireland seek goalscoring solution to book trip to Russia

Ireland manager Martin O’Neill at yesterday’s press conference. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Ireland manager Martin O’Neill at yesterday’s press conference. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

November 14, 2017 could be more than just another day. It has the potential to be momentous in the context of this nation's football history.

Ireland have never completed the business of qualifying for a World Cup in Dublin before. The decisive strike en route to Italia '90 was delivered in Malta. USA '94 was booked by Alan McLoughlin in Belfast. The final hurdle to Japan and Korea was the second leg of a play-off in Tehran.

In all of those instances, the heavy lifting may have taken place on Irish soil. But the sweet final whistle, the confirmation that the following summer would be spent at the greatest tournament of them all, has always taken place elsewhere.

The final act of all four World Cup play-off defeats - Paris 1965, Liverpool 1995, Brussels 1997 and Paris 2009 - unfolded overseas.

The challenge for Martin O'Neill's Ireland tonight is to make home advantage count for something. They did just that against Bosnia two years ago when a ticket to the European Championships was ordered by a commanding display.

Yet there are players who should feature tonight, such as Shane Duffy, Harry Arter and Cyrus Christie, who were spectators rather than contributors.

History

"I think they want to create their own history if they can," stressed O'Neill.

"And it would be lovely if we can. But we are a long way away from that of course."

This was a relaxed O'Neill, who was in good form in a pre-match press conference that ranged from the serious business of offering his sincerest best wishes to his former player Liam Miller, to an unlikely reunion with Stan Collymore, the visiting reporter from 'Russia Today'.

He also managed to address a viral video that emerged from Copenhagen that could offer an insight into what Russia could look like next summer.

The clip involved Victoria's Secret customers emerging from their lingerie shopping trip to be greeted like cup final heroes by the hundreds of Irish supporters who had created a makeshift tunnel outside. "I made that video," replied O'Neill, with precise deadpan delivery.

He later dealt with a query about Ireland's fighting spirit by pointing out that, "it's something innate in the country", before adding that "some of the people facing me would suggest that is not the case".

That was a joke, he clarified, yet it could be interpreted as a reference to the despondency that existed after an underwhelming September.

Click to view full size image
Click to view full size image

David Meyler, who was sitting to his right, subsequently said that he felt the doom and gloom was created by the press.

It went beyond that but, fuelled by the desire to silence doubters, this Irish dressing-room have emerged from the big Aviva Stadium defeat to Serbia to set up another night in Ballsbridge that will define this World Cup campaign.

The 65-year-old cast the mind back to the opening match in Belgrade 15 months ago.

"It has been a long and gruelling campaign," he asserted.

Denmark's reaction to Saturday's scoreless fare in Copenhagen suggested that Age Hareide's side felt the first 90 minutes of this tie were long and gruelling too and their frustration levels should encourage tonight's hosts.

O'Neill says Ireland need to be more expansive on their own patch. But his strategy for freshening things up will have to keep the possibility of another stalemate and extra-time in mind.

Meyler's presence at the press conference suggests he will get the armband back - much as the manager was reluctant to confirm it - and his return would allow Jeff Hendrick or Robbie Brady to switch right in place of Callum O'Dowda.

However, that depends on the physical toll that the first encounter has taken on Harry Arter and Hendrick. Daryl Murphy put himself about too, but Shane Long (left) could be a better option to stretch a sturdy Danish rearguard.

Wes Hoolahan has been called upon for significant games at the Aviva but it's entirely possible that he will be kept in reserve in case Ireland require the veteran playmaker's services to unlock the door in the dying stages.

The manager is preparing for the eventuality where Ireland require a pair of goals, yet it's worth noting the theme that runs through the keynote victories of O'Neill's tenure; Germany (1-0), Bosnia (2-0), Italy (1-0), Austria (1-0) and Wales (1-0).

The absence of a concession is the key. Ireland have won just two meaningful games under O'Neill where the opposition have struck the target - Georgia and Moldova were the opposition.

Ireland scored first in both of those games too, so when they conceded they only required another goal to regain the initiative.

Conceding first tonight would be a disaster. The settled back four behind Darren Randolph need to maintain the level of recent displays with the Shane Duffy and Ciaran Clark partnership showing promising signs that it can be carried into the Euro 2020 mission whatever happens here.

But Ireland have a short-term focus now. "This boils down to one game," said O'Neill. "We have to find a way to win a match.

"And I think we have to score a couple of goals. I really think that is the case. I think holding Denmark out for two matches is going to be very difficult. We have to bear that in mind. Our mindset is we want to create chances and we better score two."

That task is harder without a recognised goal scorer. For all of Long's positive attributes, his last goal for club or country came in February.

Ireland were the lowest-scoring side (12) of the 18 countries that made up the first and second finishers across the nine qualifying groups. They also had the fewest number of shots on target (36) which actually hints they made the most of rare opportunities to make it this close.

"You have to treat the game on its own merits," said O'Neill. "You can't look at the past now and say, 'Well we didn't do this, and we didn't do that.'

"Some of the games we might have scored more goals in but we're not prolific. I'm only here competitively for three years - four years altogether - but really top quality Republic of Ireland sides have not been able to score goals.

"You have Robbie Keane out on his own and the next person to him (in the goalscoring charts) is someone who might have forced a corner or something like that. Seriously.

"There have been great players who have played for the Republic of Ireland in their history and they have never been prolific. We have to find the net and we think we're capable of doing it.

"It won't be easy and it's a tough match for us. We find everything tough, it's the nature of us. We don't have all the skills that maybe other nations have.

"We have to find it in a different manner. So far the lads have come up big in matches and this is a massive game where we're hoping to do it again."

Strange things happen in play-offs. When Ireland have gone down, they have generally gone down in a blaze of glory. But another clean sheet can give this group the chance to write a new chapter. Unbearable tension beckons.

Verdict: Ireland 1 Denmark 0

Irish Independent

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