In preparing to face the threat of Danish dangerman Christian Eriksen in the World Cup play-off, Martin O’Neill believes his players are entitled to take encouragement from how they coped in the recent past with other standout stars like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Gareth Bale and the Bosnian duo of Edin Dzeko and Miralem Pjanic.
“I think Eriksen has become as important to Denmark as Gareth Bale is to Wales and he is certainly of that ilk,” said the Ireland manager after unveiling his latest squad yesterday. “My own view is that if you are talking about Messi and Ronaldo being the two outstanding players in the world, then Bale is in that little group behind them that includes Hazard, Suarez, Neymar, all of those players. And Eriksen in his last year, both for club and country, has put himself into that sort of category. I can’t pay him a much higher compliment.”
So having identified the scale of the challenge represented by the Spurs man, how should O’Neill’s team go about counteracting it? Man-marking, it seems, is not the manager’s preferred solution.
“I think first of all you have to get close enough to him so that he’s not running the show from very difficult positions for us, in other words 30 yards outside our box. And if we can get to the stage in either of the matches where he has to go further back to retrieve the ball then the further back he is the better for us. All of those things. But I’ve often thought this: man-marking a top quality player, if you were thinking about that, do you know what, the players do extricate themselves from these difficult positions and that’s what makes them so good. It’s a difficulty but we have to deal with it.”
And it’s here that O’Neill is happy to acknowledge Ireland’s success in limiting the impact of Ibrahimovic in Paris, Bale in Dublin and the Bosnian pair both at home and away in the Euro 2016 play-off.
“Yeah, we did actually and, funnily enough, just going back to the two play-off games we had against Bosnia, if you look now at the centre-forward (Dzeko), he is playing extraordinarily well and so is the little midfield player (Pjanic). Please, by no stretch of the imagination did they not exist in the games but we just seemed to negate their talents.
“At the time, when they pick the ball up you think ‘here they could be dangerous’. The little lad with the free-kicks (Pjanic), he bent one in there just recently for Juventus. So I think we can take heart from those two games.”
But, for O’Neill, the main focus for the first leg in Copenhagen is not the damage that might be done to his team but the damage his team can do them – specifically by grabbing a vital away goal.
“The big moment I felt in the match in Bosnia was Robbie Brady’s goal,” he said. “It gave us the away goal. I know we conceded a few minutes later but, even so, that was great going to Dublin. That would be a priority for us.”
Asked if he can identify a common denominator in all those big results against big countries which Ireland have pulled off under his watch, O’Neill reflected: “I think that we have an idea of our strengths and weaknesses and the idea is to try and cover up your weaknesses as much as you can and really go for your strengths. One of our strengths - and don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t get you everywhere - but we do have a great never-say-die spirit. It was very plain when we got the goal against Wales: backs to the wall, the boys throwing themselves around, (Shane) Duffy heading everything that was coming into the box. Knowing that it’s coming in there and knowing we’re going to defend it because the prize was so big.
“I think after the experience of being in the Euros, the lads think the World Cup is so, so important, we might never get there again - even players as young as some of the boys are. They know this is an opportunity. And I don’t think that they want to throw it up. When we have our backs to the wall, I think that we find something.
“At a great club like Nottingham Forest, we had a great, great spirit, a great manager but we also felt that we had players who could turn games. We had an exceptional outfield player in (John) Robertson who was masterful and we had some other players like Trevor Francis. I don’t say that we have that here at this minute but we try and make up for a lot of things that we don’t really possess. And there are a number of ways to try and win football matches.
“You have to set out to impose your will for yourself but also on your opposition. I hate talking about this now because we have to overcome Denmark and it won’t be easy, and we could get beaten in the two games and get knocked out. But it won’t be through lack of trying.”
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