Two games that will define O’Neill’s contribution to Irish football

If I come away from the studios tonight having enjoyed the game in Copenhagen, I will be surprised if our last match in Cardiff has proved to be the template — although a repeat of the same result would certainly be very welcome.

Two games that will define O’Neill’s contribution to Irish football

Martin O’Neill’s tactics in stopping Wales were not something I could admire even if the winning of the game was something I could enjoy. I had hoped we could reach these play-offs by playing a positive and creative kind of football but, frankly, I was probably naïve to think that. We all appreciate the determination, commitment and never-say-die spirit that is characteristic of this Irish team and I expect to see more of that tonight against Denmark.

But, with the teams pretty evenly matched, whether that will be good enough to get us to Russia is uncertain.

Tonight, Ireland face a team who can boast some talented players but they are not a side we should fear in any way. To get Denmark in the playoff draw was a huge break.

For me, these two games will define Martin O’Neill’s contribution to Irish football. He has been suggesting he has over-achieved up to now but I don’t believe that to be the case. With the slot available to the third team in the qualifying group for Euro 2016, it was always entirely possible for Ireland to reach the finals through the play-offs, although I would be the first to acknowledge that we were impressive in how we negotiated those decisive games against Bosnia. We then had a fine Euros, showing more of what our team is capable of.

The road to Russia has been tougher and, over the course of this qualifying campaign, we have had some good performances but some pretty bad ones too. However, if we can overcome Denmark then I would have no hesitation in praising the feat as a genuine over-achievement on the part of the manager.

To have Ireland qualify for the World Cup finals as one of only 13 European teams would be right up there with the best of O’Neill’s career successes. It would also mean so much to a cash-strapped FAI and hopefully fuel more investment in attracting and developing youngsters to the game I love.

That’s why these four days are massive.

The Danes did well to recover after a shaky start to their group, finishing second to Poland in front of decent teams in Montenegro and Romania. As most observers agree, in Christian Eriksen they have a player who on his day can win a game single-handedly.

He is a very intelligent footballer who can prise open a defence with a pass and who also has contributed his fair share of goals.

And his ability at free kicks is something our defenders and goalkeeper Darren Randolph will be only too well aware of. Nicklas Bendtner, if he plays, has a fine scoring record for his country and his ability in the air would also be a threat.

In defence, Chelsea’s Andreas Christensen is a young centre back who looks destined to play a long time at the top level. And in Kasper Schmeichel, they have a very capable goalkeeper.

On the face of it, Denmark are a slightly more talented team than us but what will be tested over these two games is whether they have the spirit and physicality to cope with an Irish team which has those qualities in abundance.

Ireland demonstrated in Cardiff last month, and in some difficult games over the course of the qualifying campaign, that no team is going to have an easy ride against us.

That we conceded just six goals in ten matches is testimony to Martin O’Neill’s decision to keep faith in Shane Duffy and Ciaran Clark as the centre-back pairing. I had my doubts that they could cope with so little experience but they have grown impressively as a partnership.

Neither has Cyrus Christie done too much wrong despite the daunting challenge of having to step in for our best player, Seamus Coleman. Stephen Ward too as the left-back has played consistently well.

Of course it always helps a defence to have a packed midfield harrying and pressurising opponents, something which we will undoubtedly do again tonight.

Nothing less will be required if we’re to stop a player of Eriksen’s class. I don’t think he will be man-marked but, against this Irish team, he will find space hard to come by.

David Meyler’s unnecessary booking and suspension was something we could have done without. He brings order, aggression, and positive passing to his role and his authority will be missed. Glenn Whelan looks his likely replacement.

Glenn’s lack of pace is a worry, especially with Eriksen operating in that area. He is going to need bodies around him to help in the task and I expect they will be Jeff Hendrick, Robbie Brady, and Harry Arter.

Of course, readers will know well by now that I believe we would be a better team if Wes Hoolahan was selected as the link between defence and attack.

But I can’t see that happening tonight. Instead, we will play a predictably long ball game and, with his speed in chasing after those clearances from the back, it will probably be Shane Long who gets the nod to start up front ahead of Daryl Murphy.

Our best chance of a goal will likely be from a set-piece with Brady delivering and Duffy challenging in the air. Duffy’s aggression wins him a lot of headers and he might just be the one to deliver if we are to get that precious away goal in the Parken Stadium.

The saying is that you make your own luck in football and certainly under Martin O’Neill we have had more than our fair share of that. But so much of it stems from the collective effort and determination with which the team plays.

Ultimately, it’s all about results in any sport and none more so than football. The outcome of these games is of huge importance to the game in Ireland.

Don’t expect to enjoy tonight for the quality of football that the Irish will play but you will be able to admire the courage and spirit of the team, epitomised by Duffy and James McClean.

Sooner or later, we will come up against a side that has too much quality for us but there’s a decent chance that Denmark won’t be that team.

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