Sometimes a weather forecast actually turns out to be correct. And sometimes a preview of a game of football really does predict what will eventually happen.
This is what occurred on Saturday night at Parken in Copenhagen. It all turned out as the Danes had expected — and feared.
Everyone had foreseen that the real challenge was how to break down the strong Irish defence. And everyone knew that the game plan, which had been carried out to such success in the 4-0 win against Poland in September, would probably not be as effective this time.
That came to be true, and therefore the only surprise was that the plan had not been changed.
The long passes from the defensive line towards the attackers Nicolai Jørgensen and Andreas Cornelius were by no means able to throw an Irish defence off-balance.
So why, the question was asked, did manager Åge Hareide not try to introduce a game of fast-passing around the Irish?
Hareide’s answer was all about the rough and bumpy pitch in Copenhagen which had forced him to tailor his plans. But still, there is something within the discussion which shows how the Danish national team is currently balancing its way forward on shaky ground.
The crowd was not impressed by the performance, and the sudden feeling of love between the team and the people, which was created by the Poland match, already seems a long time ago.
The fear is that it was, in fact, a false dawn. That the adaptable and pragmatic approach under Hareide has in fact created a confused team which doesn’t know its own style.
“Are we really not better than this? Are we not able to dictate a game better and create more chances, being on the ball for 66% of the time? Apparently not — and that is disappointing,” the former player turned tv pundit Stig Tøfting wrote in his column in the daily Ekstra Bladet on Monday.
Tøfting, a former no-nonsense character in Denmark’s midfield and a participant at four major tournaments, pointed out that it is still far too soon to draw the conclusion that Denmark has found its new style after the switch from the Dutch-inspired Morten Olsen to the pragmatic Hareide two years ago.
“The match against the Irish obviously exposed that Åge Hareide has not come too far with the development of the national team. Yes, we did celebrate the victory against Poland, but that was a match in which the Poles also wanted to play, and we therefore succeeded despite the more primitive style of play.
“We are still awaiting to see Denmark dictating a match being the team more in possession of the ball and creating chances from open play,” was the judgment of Tøfting.
Before the game, Hareide had spoken about the special mental challenge in playing two-legged play-off matches. He mentioned how in games like this, it is all about being “smart and patient.”
And he had several times pointed out that 0-0 might be a fine result in the first leg.
Not everyone agreed, however.
“Before the match on Saturday night, the percentage was 55-45 in favour of the Danes. Now it’s 50-50,” newspaper Politiken noted.
You get the feeling that both the manager and the players do in fact feel more confident and more satisfied by the first leg than the media and the spectators.
The first leg confirmed to Hareide and the players that Denmark has the stronger team. And that the Irish won’t have much more to offer in Dublin.
“This doesn’t change anything at all about the positive atmosphere within the team or about the spirit. There are only minor issues to adjust to take us to the World Cup,”
captain Simon Kjær said.
“We are 90 minutes from the World Cup. If we would not be in a good mood in such a situation, something would be wrong with us. If we score in Dublin, I will almost guarantee that we will go to the World Cup,” Hareide said on Sunday.
When Hareide picked his squad for the play-offs, he optimistically noted he might have an advantage over Martin O’Neill in the fact that his squad includes many players who participate in the European competitions with their clubs.
They are therefore used to playing many matches with only a few days in between.
It is not to be expected that Hareide will make many changes to his line-up. It is mainly in the front line that he is considering his options.
Yussuf Poulsen, a second-half substitute in Copenhagen, could get a start instead of Andreas Cornelius or Nicolai Jørgensen. Nicklas Bendtner is expected to remain on the bench but is a likely substitute, should Denmark be in need of a goal.
“We have to take a look at our options up front. I have many players to choose from, and it is not always easy to find the right combination. We depend on the players reaching their level on the night,” Hareide said.
None of the offensive players reached their best level on Saturday. Now the Danes hope that a better pitch and an Irish team with a more offensive look will improve the conditions in Dublin, where Christian Eriksen, at an age of only 25, will play his 75th match for Denmark.
Eriksen was part of the Danish squad at their last World Cup in 2010 when he was only 18 years old and the youngest player in the tournament.
“If we score, I feel on safe ground regarding the tickets for the World Cup. Actually, I feel very confident we will come through this challenge successfully,” were the words of the Tottenham playmaker, once again Denmark’s biggest hope on a decisive night.
Morten Glinvad is a Danish freelance journalist.
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