Monday 20 November 2017

Memories of Bosnia fuel belief in home comforts

Stephen Ward and Christian Eriksen battle for possession during Ireland’s stalemate in Copenhagen. Photo: Sportsfile
Stephen Ward and Christian Eriksen battle for possession during Ireland’s stalemate in Copenhagen. Photo: Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Halfway there. Now to try crossing the halfway line.

Cyrus Christie is one player who could argue with that assessment of Ireland's input into Saturday's first leg in Copenhagen.

After all, he came closest to an Irish goal, in a rare break from the diligent defending that made it a tedious 90-minute exercise for the viewing public.

However, regular observers of this Irish team knew that the brief in Parken Stadium was to stay alive; it was never going to be pretty.

And to a new audience, the perception was that it was the first 50pc of a masterplan.

The taxi driver on the late run from the ground hailed Martin O'Neill's organisational abilities, feeling that Ireland had laid the groundwork to get the job done in Dublin.

This is where the Irish regulars step forward to point out that it won't be that straightforward.

Ireland's World Cup campaign has taken them to Belgrade, Chisinau, Vienna, Tbilisi, Cardiff and Copenhagen and they have escaped without a defeat. Three wins, three draws.

"We've been unbeaten away and we've kept another clean sheet. We've picked up results," said Christie.

Contested

In Dublin, it's been a bit more of a drag, although the right-full contested that point.

"I don't see that our home form has been bad," he said.

"We've been in these situations before and we've risen to the occasion."

However, a year has passed since James McClean's winner in Vienna and the main line from management in the aftermath was that Ireland's fate would be settled by the big games in Ballsbridge.

At that juncture, top spot was the aim. Wales, Austria and Serbia still had to come to town.

Ireland took two points from a possible nine, with a late equaliser from Jon Walters the only goal, and needed a ballsy effort away to the Welsh to stay in the competition.

Danish manager Age Hareide made it clear that he felt an away goal for his side would put them well on the way to Russia.

"Ireland would need to score two goals then and they don't score two goals many times," he pointed out.

With all due respect to Moldova, the last time that Ireland hit that figure in a high-stakes home match was the second leg of the Euro 2016 play-off with Bosnia.

That was the precedent to which Christie was referring and it has to be the template for tomorrow night's display.

Ireland did go into that match with the security of an away goal in a 1-1 draw, but they convincingly won the Aviva clash 2-0.

O'Neill was keen to get out of the stadium quickly on Saturday rather than dwell to offer lengthy observations on round one.

He will be in front of the cameras in Abbotstown today and it's a safe bet that he will simply lay out the task at hand.

There are no more permutations to consider here; no need to discuss whether this fixture is a must-win or not.

In the earlier Aviva games this year Ireland had the security of knowing that a point might be alright in the end.

This is different.

"We know what's at stake and know what we have to do," said Christie.

"It's come down to one game now and we are 90 minutes away from potentially going to a World Cup.

"Saturday was probably one of the best away performances (in terms of a gameplan) that you could probably do. We need to make it count now."

To call it a vintage display was a stretch, to say the least, but it shines a light on the mindset of O'Neill's group.

The manager had cited the Bosnia example in the build-up and while the away goal there really gave Ireland the impetus to book a summer in France, the approach in the return was more positive.

A midfield diamond was selected and Wes Hoolahan was urged to support front pair Daryl Murphy and Jon Walters.

In his ruminations ahead of the second leg in this decider, he must mull over whether to go back to that route again.

Hoolahan was selected for the Serbian game in September, but it would be a surprise if he was pitched in against the Danes.

O'Neill will need to keep something in reserve in case of emergencies and sending in Shane Long next to Murphy would leave a shortage of experienced go-to options on the sideline.

David Meyler is available again and his fresh legs could help with the task of shackling Eriksen. He brings energy to that department.

Harry Arter and Jeff Hendrick were both replaced in the dying minutes with the battery levels low - the latter was a well-flagged injury concern - and their well-being will shape the Derryman's thinking.

Callum O'Dowda is the most obvious contender to drop out, with the option there to send Hendrick to the right and bring Meyler in next to Arter, in a swap that would keep the five-man midfield in vogue.

Robbie Brady could also be shifted to the wing as Denmark's left-full Jens Stryger Larsen was a threat.

The diamond option would require one of Meyler, Arter and Hendrick to miss out and can leave a side vulnerable to width. Aleksandar Kolarov's winning goal for Serbia in September highlighted that, with Christie sucked infield at a key moment.

So the percentage call is a repeat strategy with a slightly rejigged cast of characters.

Choosing Long over Murphy could be the method of sprucing up the front line.

He does have the pace to chase lost causes, even if he's not as strong in the area of holding the ball up.

In his short press conference, O'Neill acknowledged that Ireland must be better with the ball.

That is a familiar cry, but his players do appear to feed off the reference points from their time working under this management team.

"I'm sure the Aviva will be rocking like it was against Bosnia," said Christie, who has emerged from the shadow of Seamus Coleman's injury to show he can make a real contribution at this level.

"I'm relatively inexperienced compared to a lot of the lads on the international stage.

"I'm going to make mistakes, but it's how I bounce back from that and rectify them and move on that matters."

Is he confident of progression?

"Why wouldn't I be?" responded Christie, the last man on to the bus after coming through doping control.

"We've come out with a good result and I'm sure we can put on another special night.

"Every game breeds confidence. We're not going to overthink it. We have to win, plain and simple."

Plain and simple has got Ireland this far.

In the Bosnian decider, Ireland went to a level just above that. They need to get back there again to take the final step.

Irish Independent

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