‘To the left, to the right, he’s our midfield dynamite,’ goes the song Spurs fans sing about Christian Eriksen.
For Ireland fans, Eriksen is the man who could blow their World Cup dreams out of the water.
Danish fans view the midfielder as the new Michael Laudrup, and Denmark coach Age Hareide said simply: “When we get the ball, the first thing we do is look for Christian.”
It seems longer than four years since then national coach Morten Olsen publically castigated the player, still only 22 at the time, after defeat to Portugal in a European championship qualifier.
Eriksen had joined Tottenham Hotspur from Ajax a year before, and Olsen reckoned the move to the Premier League should have resulted in an improvement to the young star’s game.
“After so many matches he could pick up the ball and help to control the game. He has not been able to,” grumbled Olsen, who also complained of Eriksen’s “sloppiness” and said: “He must stand up to the criticism.”
Such criticism was also more frequent in the stands at White Hart Lane than some Spurs fans may care to admit now.
There was a feeling that Eriksen lacked that extra spark that would allow him to pull the strings.
But just as the great Dane has progressed under Mauricio Pochettino into one of the most effective club players in Europe, so Hareide’s adoption of a five-man midfield has enabled Eriksen to flourish on the international stage.
At Spurs, it’s interesting to compare Eriksen’s game with that of young England star Dele Alli.
Eriksen has learnt the value of pacing his game, of sitting back and looking for options.
By contrast, Alli’s natural tendency is to get forward, to make the kind of probing runs a support striker is expected to make.
And in consequence, he’ll sometimes become frustrated, exhausted, or both.
Talented as Dele is, Eriksen’s patience makes a big difference. Eriksen’s passing is neat and tidy, there’s rarely a wasted ball.
His set-piece delivery is exceptional — and him being due one of his spectacular free-kick goals will be a fact not lost on fans of Ireland worried about keeper Darren Randolph.
But perhaps the best example of what he has brought to his all-round game — the final riposte to Olsen’s criticisms perhaps? — came at Wembley recently on the night Spurs humbled European champions Real Madrid.
For his team’s third goal Eriksen spotted the chance to break at speed, deftly received a well-judged pass from Harry Kane, held off the attentions of Luka Modric — a symbolic battle-win in itself — and slotted home coolly.
As the ball nestled in the net he cantered to the home end smiling, drank in the celebrations briefly, and then returned to work.
The no-fuss attitude epitomised his approach.
Pochettino says he is “a player that does not need too much the feedback of the fans, the media, the people outside. He does not need to be recognised.”
That Eriksen simply wants to play, to achieve for the sake of achieving, perhaps explains why he is such a valuable asset, and provides a welcome antidote to the pumped-up self-importance of much in modern football.
So how do the Republic stop him?
O’Neill has called Eriksen “one of the best in the world” in his position, but the Ireland manager is not known for making detailed plans to stop individual players.
Craig Bellamy, who played under O’Neill at Celtic, told Sky Sports recently: “There were times you would turn up on a Friday, and you wouldn’t know what formation you’re playing on a Saturday, he’d just read a list, and I’d have to look at Neil Lennon and ask: ‘What formation are we playing?’ There was no information whatsoever.”
Shay Given recently intimated O’Neill’s approach was the same for the national team, so don’t expect a man-marking job.
Funnily enough, Eriksen said this week: “I don’t think Ireland will just focus on one player. However, I hope they will, because then I’m sure other players will take over.”
Closing Eriksen down and forcing him deep may be the answer, but his ability to read a game and pick his moment means he only needs a moment to make his talent count.
Martin Cloake writes the Irish Examiner’s Tottenham Terrace Talk column
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