An Ugly Job Well Done, Back To Dublin It Is

An Ugly Job Well Done, Back To Dublin It Is
By Gavin Cooney Updated

Denmark, welcome to Ireland's level: a kind of rugged, unforgiving zone in which no ironies or pretensions survive. A Danish paper today screamed of the "Irish Coffin", and the opportunity to "bury Ireland's World Cup dream for good". As it happened, Ireland dragged them deeper. This was a prodigious display of hassling, blocking, and time-wasting replete with some hard running and even harder tackling.

Whereas Wales were robbed of craft by the injury to Joe Allen in Cardiff, this time the opposition were complicit in the crudities.

Having tiki-takaed themselves to nowhere under previous manager Morten Olsen, Age Hareide has been given tolerance to launch. The towering duo of Andreas Cornelius and Nicolai Jorgensen were picked as kinds of Trojan Workhorses: their knockdowns and general nuisance intended to bring the best out of the more threatening Christian Eriksen.

It didn't really work, with Shane Duffy particularly excellent: his aggression in attacking the ball has been tempered with experience, no longer do we see the reckless sojourns that cost Ireland against France at the Euros. Aside from that, Denmark targeted Cyrus Christie, who responded with perhaps his best game in an Irish shirt.

He dealt well with the aerial threat of Jorgensen, twice made critical tackles on Eriksen and offered a better attacking threat than any other fullback on the pitch. He will be forgiven the wild slice late on. Where Denmark did look dangerous was when Eriksen trained his crosshairs diagonally on the space between Duffy and Cyrus Christie. Twice Denmark exploited that space in the first half and twice they should have scored, with a scrambling Darren Randolph and an errant Sisto earning Ireland relief.

Randolph was outstanding, denying a Poulsen header late on.

Ireland's selection of Callum O'Dowda signalled intent but failed to deliver it: with Brady and McClean pulling left Ireland rarely attacked down O'Dowda's flank. The one time they did, O'Dowda linked up intricately with a rampaging Christie, who wrongly elected not to pull the ball back to Jeff Hendrick.

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What felt as a bolder selection call ultimately begat a similar performance as we saw in Cardiff. Without the ball, Ireland's midfield three of Hendrick, Arter, and Brady were knitted tightly together, with O'Dowda and McClean sitting deep as virtual wing-backs. That Christie run was perhaps Ireland's best opportunity, aside from a late McClean header and an earlier chance for Hendrick which fell to him after McClean skewed a cross so badly it landed at his own feet.

O'Neill probably erred in his striker selection. The style of knocking the ball into the channels was an uneasy response to the lumbering Daryl Murphy, who was eventually replaced by Shane Long for the final quarter. He was isolated for the whole game, although the lone furrow he ploughed was indistinguishable from the others dug up on a stodgy pitch.

Ireland's lack of craft was compensated by graft: Brady and McClean's tracking back was ceaseless and outstanding. This was a typical O'Neill performance in which all but one of his predictions rang true. He believed it inevitable that at least one of the fourteen players on the field would be suspended for the second leg owing to the accumulation of yellows, yet everyone escaped: evidently, nobody was more affronted by this rule than referee Milorad Mazic, who didn't show a yellow card all night. Harry Arter can count himself particularly fortunate having cynically dragged down Christian Eriksen as the game became more loose.

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But on a tetchy, haggard night, Ireland will fly back to Dublin with this considered an ugly job well done. By contrast, the only vindication for Denmark was for their Association: the retractable roof was closed at yesterday's training session to protect the pitch. Tonight it was open and ultimately, the surface was largely untroubled by the football whereas a closed roof might well have been dented beyond repair.

Perhaps Ireland's failure to get an away goal tonight will be borne out in anxiety at the Aviva, but those are worries for a later day when perhaps Ireland's level will be higher than we saw tonight.

But this was the level needed, where nobody breathes but No Great Shakes.

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On to Dublin.

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