by Liam Mackey
There was one team trying to play football in the Parken Stadium tonight and another trying to stop them. No prizes for guessing which was which.
And the whistles and boos which greeted the final whistle confirmed that, if Ireland had once again failed to charm with their no-frills football, they had at least done enough to ensure that the first leg of this World Cup playoff would not see Denmark make the most of their home advantage.
That the visitors picked up no yellow cards was a considerable bonus but the failure to score an away goal – not that, a couple of half-chances apart, that ever seemed like a realistic objective with the way they played – could come back to haunt them, since the Danes are now the only side who can claim that precious advantage when the two teams meet in what is now the decisive game at the Aviva Stadium on Tuesday.
It’s often said that Martin O’Neill is predictable in his managerial approach and there’s certainly enough evidence in his time as Ireland manager to lend substance to that view. Tonight was no exception. But, to his credit, he has also shown a willingness to give youth its chance on some of the biggest of occasions, such as giving Shane Duffy his competitive debut against Italy at the Euros and putting Kevin Long in at home to Austria in a World Cup qualifier.
Both of those were central defensive picks, of course, so in the context of a game as massive as the first leg of a World Cup play-off, there was even more of a surprise element to O’Neill’s opting for the youth and attacking instincts of Callum O’Dowda over the experience and defensive emphasis of Glenn Whelan, in the one change from the side which won in Wales.
If David Meyler had not been suspended, perhaps we would still have seen the same starting eleven in Copenhagen tonight as we had seen in Cardiff, but the fleet-footed O’Dowda’s selection also seemed, at least as the teams took the pitch, to back up the manager’s pre-match insistence that his team were determined to get an away goal. And, in sticking with Daryl Murphy ahead of Shane Long, he presumably also saw the need for an injection of the pace which the new boy possesses.
At 22-years-old, and despite his limited big game experience, the in-form O’Dowda is also one of those young players who always gives the impression that he is utterly untroubled by pressure. And he would have been under no illusions that this was nearly as big as it gets in international football, with fireworks blasting into the cold night sky above the vaulting Parken stands before a ball was even kicked on the bumpy pitch.
Unfortunately, what looked positive on paper from Ireland failed to find a mirror on the field of play, the visitors’ first meaningful attacking contribution of a grim first half coming as late as the 43rd minute when Cyrus Christie had a penetrating run on goal from a tight angle which forced Kasper Schmeichel into his first save of the game.
At the other end, the far busier Darren Randolph had kept Ireland in it with two crucial saves, and was then relieved when Pione Sisto missed a sitter after the ‘keeper had failed to hold Christian Eriksen’s shot. Throughout, the Danes almost entirely bossed possession and, playing like a quarterback, skipper Simon Kjaer repeatedly tested a nervy Irish rearguard with raking diagonal long balls. For their part, the visitors frequently had all eleven players in their own half so that an already weary-looking Daryl Murphy had to forage on his own to no great effect up front.
So frustrated were the hosts by Ireland’s suffocating approach that the biggest cheer of the night came twenty minutes from the end to herald the arrival of Niclas Bendtner, followed soon after by a smaller but not less passionate one from the travelling fans, as Shane Long made his entrance.
Neither striker did anything to disturb the equilibrium, the game ending as it had begun and then unfolded, with Ireland’s man of the match Randolph making a final telling contribution to turn substitute Yussuf Poulsen’s header over the top, Ireland seeing out the final minutes of added time in the same backs to the wall manner in which they had negotiated most of the previous 90.
Now, it’s all to play for in Dublin.