Saturday night in Copenhagen marked my 25th anniversary return to the Parken Stadium and, at one level, it was as if nothing had changed in a quarter of a century.
It was scoreless between Denmark and Ireland in 1992 and it was scoreless again in 2017, and both games ended with the home crowd frustrated and the away supporters in celebratory mode at the final whistle.
But nil-nil away from home early in a World Cup qualification campaign, as was the case 25 years ago, and nil-nil away in a World Cup qualification play-off are two very different things.
It would have been all well and good to hear the Green Army rolling back the years and singing ‘you’ll never beat the Irish’ at the end of a sterile game in the Parken on Saturday night except for the rather inconvenient fact that tomorrow night in Dublin the Danes won’t actually need to beat Martin O’Neill’s team to prevail.
A score draw at the Aviva will be enough to end Ireland’s World Cup dream and, on the basis of what we saw in Copenhagen, you wouldn’t bet too heavily against that coming to pass. Home advantage is a familiar concept in football and, yes, Ireland will have that in front of a full-throated Lansdowne Road.
But, on the back of the team’s inability to nick one in Copenhagen — not that their suffocating performance deserved a win — what you might call the away advantage now lies with the Danes.
Ireland’s sometimes abject display in Copenhagen might have been broadly similar to much of what the team had served up in Cardiff, but there were two crucial differences.
The first was that, despite a customarily spirited defensive performance by the away team, the Danes still managed to create three big goal chances, with only profligacy on their part and superb goalkeeping on the part of Darren Randolph keeping the scoreboard bare and so making the night much less painful for Ireland than it might have been.
The other big difference, of course, was that there was no reprise of James McClean’s magic moment in Cardiff, with Cyrus Christie’s improvised effort the closest the Irish came to pulling off another improbable smash and grab job.
“It was close enough,” says the Middlesbrough full-back.
“It was one of those ones where I couldn’t really get my foot around it to cut it back someone. It would have been perfect if somebody had been coming in at the far post. So I tried to get the ball over Schmeichel but the bobble was on it and I couldn’t get enough power on it to lift it over him.
“It was a good chance and on another day he probably spills it out to someone and they follow it in on the rebound. It would obviously be nice to have gotten an away goal but we can’t think about that, the game is gone, we have to move onto Tuesday and try to win the game and come out on top.”
Along with all the other Irish players in yellow peril in Copenhagen, Christie survived to play another day, something of real significance in his case since, in the continued absence of Seamus Coleman, Martin O’Neill might have felt he had little option but to slot returning midfielder David Meyler in at right-back tomorrow night if Christie had been forced to miss out.
And it’s quite a tribute to the Middlesbrough full-back that, while Coleman is still sorely missed, the Donegal man’s absence hasn’t been anything like as fatal to Ireland’s World Cup hopes as many would have feared when he suffered that terrible broken leg in the home game against Wales.
“Some people are always going to compare me to Seamus and I’ve come in for a bit of flak which I think is unfair at times,” Christie reflects. “I feel I’ve defended well, we’ve kept clean sheets and on Saturday night I thought I defended well and got forward.
“At times I haven’t been able to get forward as much as I like to but I’ve got to do a job for the team and everyone puts in a shift.
“Every game breeds confidence. Whether you play well or not, you learn from your mistakes and you have to put things right in the next game. I think I’ve done that. I’m relatively inexperienced compared to a lot of the lads on the international stage. I’m going to make mistakes but it’s about how I bounce back from that and how I rectify them and move on.
“Obviously Seamus is a massive miss. Everyone knows that. You know what kind of player he is, he’s a fantastic player and he’s at the top of his game in the Premiership. He’s probably been the best full-back in the Premiership in the last few years so he’s been a big miss and big boots to fill. But hopefully I’m doing an OK job.”
As a collective, however, Ireland will need to be rather more than OK — and certainly much better than they were in Copenhagen — if they are to deliver another of those nights to remember in Dublin tomorrow. The appearance of Wes Hoolahan’s name in the teamsheet would be an inspirational statement of intent — for the other players, you feel, as much as for the fans — but, though Martin O’Neill has already stressed the need for more creativity in the side, it remains to be seen if he thinks the talents of the Norwich playmaker are best employed from the start or off the bench.
What is clear is that the whole of this rollercoaster qualification game now comes down to these decisive final 90 or 120 minutes. And let’s not, for the moment, even consider the heart-stopping possibility of the drama going all the way to a penalty shoot-out.
“It’s a boyhood dream for everyone to play in a World Cup and I’m sure the Aviva will be rocking like it was against Bosnia,” says Cyrus Christie. “There’s no reason why we can’t do it. Confident? Yeah, why wouldn’t I be? We’ve gone to Denmark and put on a good performance and come out with a good result. We’ve done it on plenty of occasions where we’ve risen to the challenge after people have written us off and I’m sure we can put on another special night.
“We know what’s at stake and know what we have to do. It’s come down to one game now and we are 90 minutes away from potentially going to a World Cup.”
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