Having displayed grit in Copenhagen, Ireland must find different gear tonight

Don’t expect a thriller

Having displayed grit in Copenhagen, Ireland must find different gear tonight

This is the inevitable result of non-elite players performing in a winner-takes-all environment.

As the stakes increase, so too does the tendency of players to opt for the safety-first approach for fear of making a mistake that could cost their country.

Rather than full-backs overlapping, they stay back.

Rather than defenders playing their way out of trouble, they launch it high and long. Shots are taken from distance, chances more often created from set-pieces.

The seven Uefa play-off ties so far have produced seven goals, and five of those came in one game.

It comes down to a question of who cracks first.

Yet that makes the contest no less absorbing. Proficient and daring attacking play may be a usual key ingredient for our enjoyment of football, but the magnitude of the situation can eclipse all else.

The second leg will be a harrowing, frightening, and uncomfortable watch even if Ireland are to qualify, just as it was in the Millennium Stadium in October.

But when a place at the World Cup is stake at the end of two years’ work, how could it ever be anything else?

Ireland must show more calmness in midfield

Denmark midfielder Thomas Delaney said that getting past Ireland was like opening a tin of baked beans with his bare hands, and it should be taken as a compliment. It wasn’t pretty — and at times it was downright ugly — but pretty doesn’t get you to Russia; effective does.

But having displayed their defensive grit in the first leg, Ireland must find a different gear in the Aviva.

Their defensiveness was partly by design, but also because their central midfielders struggled to retain possession or provide Daryl Murphy with anything other than hopeful punts. Even the set-piece taking, a key weapon in Ireland’s armoury, was dire.

Ceding 72% possession will surely not work at home, for it will invite nerves to pass down from the stands and into the minds of the players. Instead, the ball must be cherished rather than launched away, and the central midfield work as an attacking unit rather than merely a shield for the defence. First-leg dourness can be celebrated, but only if it is vindicated by the successful pursuit of triumph.

Murphy on his own?

You can’t blame Daryl Murphy, for he is a symptom of the problem rather than the cause.

Yet his presence as a lone striker in a 4-5-1 invites the long ball forward, which only works if Ireland gets runners beyond him. Too easily he becomes isolated, and too easily Ireland are thwarted as an attacking threat.

There is a reason why O’Neill’s side have scored six goals in their last eight competitive matches.

The obvious option is for Ireland to sacrifice a central midfielder and start Shane Long alongside Murphy, but Long’s own miserable scoring record is a long-term concern.

Long has now gone 28 matches for club and country without a goal. He is a willing runner, can create chances for Murphy and would happily drop deep if the match situation demanded it, but hasn’t exactly been Ireland’s recent spark.

Still, there aren’t many alternatives to this two-prong attack.

The top international goalscorers in the current squad are Long (17), McClean (10), Brady (7) and McGeady (5). Would O’Neill risk giving Scott Hogan his debut in such a critical game?

Eriksen must get closer to goal

The Danes had 355 more touches of the ball than Ireland in Copenhagen and had five shots on target to Ireland’s two, but looks can be deceiving.

Darren Randolph made two smart saves, but Denmark’s was a sterile dominance. Eight of their 14 shots were from outside the penalty area, indicating an inability to break through the defensive line, whilst starting forwards Nicolai Jorgensen, Andreas Cornelius, and Pione Sisto touched the ball just eight times in Ireland’s penalty area between them.

Most interesting were Christian Eriksen’s touches, with only one coming within 20 yards of Ireland’s goal.

Denmark’s best player played plenty of short, successful passes in midfield, but generally operated in deeper areas as his side struggled for attacking fluency.

If that deeper position is similar to Eriksen’s recent role at club level for Tottenham, Denmark need it to change in Dublin.

Eriksen had scored in six straight matches for his country before Saturday, and only Robert Lewandowski, Romelu Lukaku, Andre Silva, and Cristiano Ronaldo have scored more often in Uefa qualifying.

It might be asking a lot of Eriksen to be both creator and finisher, but Denmark’s passage to Russia might just depend on it. Over the last six months, they have been close to a one-man team.

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