LIAM MACKEY: Martin O'Neill in search of the Midas touch

A colleague recently posted a fantastic photo of his newborn son, eyes fiercely blazing, face all scrunched up, the very picture of a tiny Mr Angry. Another colleague was quick to respond that it surely wasn’t good parenting to have exposed one so tender to the brutal highlights of Ireland 1, Denmark 5, writes Liam Mackey.

Yep, I guess all Irish supporters were a bit like that little guy last November, caught between speechless fury and an overpowering urge to bawl their eyes out. And revisiting the scene of the crime all of 11 months on does little to help the healing process.

However, there is one consolation: rerunning the tape of the Danish pasting does serve to remind that Christian Eriksen’s absence this time around is a silver bullet dodged for Martin O’Neill’s men.

Which is not to say, of course, that the Danes are a one-man team nor that they can’t inflict more misery on the Irish tonight. But there’s still no getting away from the fact that it was the Spurs man who made all the difference last November.

There were other factors, of course, arguably beginning with Ireland’s failure to ever look like claiming that vital away goal in the first leg in Copenhagen. Then, in Dublin, there was the all-too-familiar sight of an Irish team conceding from a position of strength, that unfortunate Cyrus Christie own goal not only cancelling out the dream start Shane Duffy had given the home side but effectively putting the visitors ahead in the tie.

Ireland would continue to contribute significantly to their own downfall as the game progressed, a combination of individual errors on the pitch and O’Neill’s backfiring tactical gamble in the dug-out, creating the circumstances by which what would always have been a depressing defeat could turn into an embarrassing rout.

But with so much of the agonised post-mortem understandably devoted to where it had all gone horribly wrong for Ireland, there probably wasn’t enough credit paid in this neck of the woods to Eriksen for what can only be described as one of the greatest individual displays of finishing ever seen in an international game in Dublin. Parking his residual pain, “sublime” was the word Martin O’Neil chose to describe that masterclass yesterday.

Park your own pain, if you can, and review the evidence. His first goal was sensational.

Yes, with Ireland caught out on the counter, he did find himself in acres of space on the edge of the area but, whereas a lesser player would have used that space to take a touch and get himself closer to the target, Eriksen had the supreme confidence and mastery of technique to strike the ball first time with his right foot, the power and accuracy of the shot taking it crashing into Darren Randolph’s net off the underside of the bar.

His second wasn’t far behind. This time there was a touch to take control of the ball just outside the box and then, using two green shirts as a shield, he bent a left-footed shot around them and inside the post. And the third, even if set up by Stephen Ward’s miskick, wasn’t too shabby either, the predator pouncing to punish the error with another first-time rocket to the roof of the net.

There wasn’t a tap-in or anything close to one among them, his hat-trick the footballing version of King Midas: everything the great Dane touched, turned to goals.

So, let’s be frank, the absence of Christian Eriksen at the Aviva tonight cannot be interpreted as anything other than A Good Thing for Ireland.

But whether the home side can make the most of Denmark’s bad fortune is another matter altogether.

Martin O’Neill has been quick to point out that Ireland too will be without a couple of key men for the game, not least the team’s captain Seamus Coleman. This week Shane Duffy even went so far as to float the notion that “he is our Eriksen, maybe”.

Well, this is a bit of a stretch, methinks.

It is in no way to undervalue Coleman’s exceptional quality as a player nor his importance to the Irish team to suggest that, even as adventurous a full-back as he is, will always struggle to exert as game-changing an influence on the attacking side of things as a world-class number 10 like Eriksen.

Still, Coleman will, of course, be sorely missed tonight, although to what extent won’t perhaps be altogether clear until we see the fruits, or otherwise, on the field of play of the manager’s deliberations regarding the competing claims of Matt Doherty and Cyrus Christie.

O’Neill has other crucial selection and tactical calls to make too before kick-off, and probably more during the game itself but, on the back of so much recent turbulence on and off the pitch, more than anything he needs to show that he can reprise his own memorable highlights reel as Ireland manager and, by rediscovering his own Midas touch, as it were, help inspire this team to be more than the sum of its parts.

“Sure we’ve done it before,” was Shane Duffy’s reply this week when asked for reasons to believe in Ireland’s ability to bounce back.

“It’s up to the players, and a top manager who is going to organise us and get us set up the right way. He’s got a lot of experience in the game to go on and knows what he’s talking about. And we trust him.”

The Aviva awaits and, it’s fair to say, waits to be convinced.


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