Ireland must frustrate Denmark to seal World Cup playoff progress
DUBLIN, Ireland -- The Republic of Ireland and Denmark will be the last European teams to either celebrate or suffer at the hands of the 2018 World Cup playoffs. At 0-0, going into the second leg in Dublin, the tie could not be finer balanced.
As Denmark coach Age Hareide observed of Ireland, the hosts have become far more adept at playing away than at the Aviva Stadium. "I saw the game they played with Serbia, they lost 1-0," he said at a news conference on Monday evening. "They drew against Wales 0-0 [at home], they won away to Wales 1-0, and they drew 2-2 in Serbia. They just want us to make a mistake. That's OK. I haven't got the patience to play like that."
That comment sounded like Hareide trying to tempt Martin O'Neill away from the defensive shell that has got his Ireland team to this point. But O'Neill won't be swayed.
The pressure of being so close to the World Cup can stir even the most hardened of football men but O'Neill was not prepared to give away any secrets of how he might prepare his team. When the question was asked of him, there was a long pause before O'Neill gave an uncharacteristically short answer. "Woah, gosh, I think I will leave that for today," was all he would muster.
He and Hareide know each other well, having played together at Manchester City and Norwich, even sharing the same house at one point -- "I was a very good lodger, and he was a good landlord," as Hareide put it last week. The one-time co-habitants have stayed polite but there has been an edge to their platitudes since Saturday's 0-0 draw.
A match influenced by a sodden, heavy pitch in Copenhagen became a grind towards the final whistle, with Hareide annoyed his team could not take the few chances they created through Ireland's wall of green. "They [Ireland] don't increase the space, they make it as narrow as possible," he said, speaking in the hope that his star playmaker Christian Eriksen might receive quality time on the ball. However, having staged a rugby international between Ireland and South Africa on Saturday and been doused in some seasonal heavy rain, the Dublin pitch is not likely to be much better.
Eriksen will not have the benefit of playing off the likes of Harry Kane or Dele Alli as he does at club level for Tottenham. RB Leipzig's Yussuf Poulsen, Feyenoord's Nicolai Jorgensen and Celta Vigo's Pione Sisto are a lower grade of foil, and Eriksen is likely to have Hull City's David Meyler, back from suspension, keeping close watch on him in midfield.
Meyler, one of those players whose performances for his country outweigh those for his club, broke the otherwise cordial relations between Tuesday's teams by questioning Denmark's "character, heart and desire" on Monday, and received a ratty, withering response.
"He doesn't know the players," said Hareide. "Most of our players are spread out in the whole of Europe, some with great experience and they don't get that far if they don't have the heart and the brains to play football."
A glance at Denmark's squad list throws up players from Serie A, La Liga, the Bundesliga, and three Premier League stars in Leicester City's Kasper Schmeichel, Chelsea's Andreas Christiansen and Tottenham's Eriksen. That's compared to an Irish group including 13 players from the English League Championship, in which James McClean, who these days spends much of his time on West Brom's bench, is an undoubted talisman.
Only McClean and Shane Long, a striker who has not scored since February, had more shots than central defender Shane Duffy in qualifying, which shows a team that must live off other means. Commitment to the collective, coupled with frustrating their opponent, is Ireland's route to Russia.
Only by doing that will Ireland experience the joy rather than the cruelty the playoffs can bring.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.