Ireland fall apart at final hurdle on road to Russia

Rep of Ireland 1 Denmark 5
There’s no other way to address that scoreline except to say: read it and weep. 

This was a night of unutterably crushing disappointment at the Aviva as Ireland not only fell, but fell apart, at the final hurdle on the road to Russia and what should have been the high point of Martin O’Neill’s reign as Ireland manager ended up as an unprecedented low.

Having gotten off to a dream start with an early Shane Duffy goal, the home side self-destructed in a punishing three-minute spell later in the first half, a Cyrus Christie own goal and a class finish from Christian Eriksen — but only after Stephen Ward’s mistake had gifted the Danes possession — putting the visitors firmly in control and on the way to the World Cup finals.

For Ireland, the dream had suddenly twisted into a nightmare and it was one from which they couldn’t escape, especially after the Spurs star found the net again with another superb strike just past the hour mark. 

Turning a beating into a rout, Eriksen took advantage of another mistake by Ward to complete his hat-trick with 15 minutes to go and, as in Gdansk when Spain put four past Ireland five years ago, the night moved towards its painful conclusion to the soundtrack of the loyal Irish fans singing the ‘Fields Of Athenry’ as a lament for what might have been.

And still there was more pain to endure, the rout ending as a humiliation for Ireland and Martin O’Neill when Nicklas Bendtner, on as a substitute, finished off the scoring with a penalty kick which was rapturously received by the travelling fans in the Havelock end.

Ireland’s World Cup fate might have boiled down to this one game but there’s a legitimate argument that, tough though their qualifying group was, it should never really have come to this. 

Almost exactly one year ago Ireland were in a commanding position on top of Group D having taken 10 points from their opening four games, three of which were away from home. 

But, before they staged a successful late rally to make it to this play-off, they had blown that hard-earned early advantage with a terrible sequence of three draws and one defeat, in the course of which they took a mere two points from three home games.

That extended capitulation, as much as last night’s brutal anti-climax, is why Ireland are not going to Russia. 

And the questions it raises about the team’s unwillingness or inability to at least attempt to dominate the ball — a depressing phenomenon which, as always, is crystallised by the debate about the manager’s deployment of Wes Hoolahan — will now completely overshadow the moments of magic and momentous results which have been achieved under O’Neill’s watch.

The harsh reality is that failure to qualify for World Cup finals next summer — and especially because of the abject manner in which it was confirmed last night — ensures that none of the key moments of a long and arduous campaign will retain their warming glow as winter takes its grip. 

Daryl Murphy’s late equaliser on the opening night in Belgrade, James McClean’s winner in Vienna, Jon Walters’ bail-out goal at home to Austria and that man McClean again providing the decisive breakthrough in Cardiff — all were crucial in compensating for troubling stumbles at home to set up last night’s final act. 

But they count for little or nothing now, on this bleak morning after a night of misery at Lansdowne Road.

It is sad too to think of what it must have been like for the missing men, Jon Walters and skipper Seamus Coleman, having to look on helplessly as Ireland were put to the sword. 

The latter had paid the heaviest price of all on the road to Russia and it would have been a fitting reward for the Donegal man if his reward had been the honour of captaining his country on football’s greatest stage. 

And for a great servant like John O’Shea, this was not, to say the least of it, the way he would have wanted to end his international career.

Martin O’Neill had settled for just the one change from Copenhagen at the start last night, Callum O’Dowda making way for the back from suspension David Meyler. 

Daryl Murphy retained his place upfront leaving Shane Long and Wes Hoolahan to cool their heels on the bench, omissions which would prove costly in the long run. For the Danes, Andres Christensen and Yussuf Poulsen started in place of Peter Ankersen and Andreas Cornelius.

The Aviva was a cauldron of unrelenting noise as the game kicked off before, with just six minutes on the clock, the decibel level breached all known health and safety levels, as chaotic Danish defending of an unthreatening Robbie Brady free kick, allowed Shane Duffy to capitalise on Nicolai Jorgensen’s mistake and nip in get ahead of Kasper Schmeichel to make the most of the present by heading home the simplest but most welcome of goals.

It was the perfect start for Ireland but one which would all too quickly unravel. First, the home side almost conceded in the 16th minute as William Kvist brought the best out of Darren Randolph. Ominously, within another couple of minutes Ireland were pulled apart again, the ’keeper this time denying Pione Sisto.

It seemed way too early for Ireland to be sitting back and playing on the counter but that approach almost paid off in the 21st minute, as Cyrus Christie’s surging run and across was turned inches wide at the near post by Murphy. 

Then just two minutes later, a sweeping Irish move down the left flank ended with perpetual motion man James McClean shooting narrowly wide from a tight angle.

It was breathless stuff played out against an electrifying backdrop but soon the Irish found themselves badly winded as Denmark got the away goal they craved.

And it was as soft as Ireland’s opener had been. From a short corner, Pione Sisto nutmegged Harry Arter and side-footed the ball across the face of goal. Andres Christensen got a touch which sent the ball almost dribbling onto the post before softly rebounding off Christie and crossing the line.

Advantage Denmark. And, then as a shell-shocked Ireland lost all composure, it was suddenly two for the visitors, Stephen Ward gifting the ball to Poulsen and the resultant swift, ruthlessly clinical Danish breakaway finishing with Eriksen smashing a superb first-time shot in off the underside of Randolph’s crossbar.

And so this infamously goal-shy Ireland, the team that had only once scored twice at home in a game in this campaign — and that against Moldova — had to find a brace from somewhere. And, with the away goal advantage to Denmark, they also knew that they only had 45 minutes in which to do it.

O’Neill sent for two of his most creative players, Wes Hoolahan and Aiden McGeady, the holding midfield men Meyler and Arter making way. It was only half-time but this was a double substitution which already had an all-or-nothing feel about it.

In having to throw caution to the wind, Ireland were clearly vulnerable to being picked off again and, just past the hour mark, that man Eriksen struck once more, another brilliant finish effectively sealing the deal for the Danes at 3-1. 

Shane Long made his belated entrance in the 70th minute but it was to be Eriksen’s night, as the Danish superstar gave a masterclass in the goal-scorer’s art, completing his hat-trick before Nicklas Bendtner had the final say on a night to remember for Denmark — and a night Irish football will want to forget.

REPUBLIC OF IRELAND: Randolph, Christie, Clark (Long 70), Duffy, Ward, Meyler (Hoolahan 45), Arter (McGeady 45) Brady, Hendrick, McClean, Murphy.

DENMARK: Schmeichel, Christiansen, Bjelland, Kjaer, Larsen (Ankersen 53), Denlaney, Kvist, Poulsen (Cornelius 69), Eriksen, Sisto, Jorgensen (Bendtner 83).


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