Danish manager Age Hareide was asked to expand yesterday on what he meant when he said recently that Ireland are easy to read but difficult to resist.
DENMARK V REPUBLIC OF IRELAND - World Cup qualifier (first leg)
Tonight: Telia Park, Copenhagen, 7.45pm
Referee: Milorad Mažic (Serbia)
TV: RTÉ Two, Sky Sports
Bet: Denmark 11/8, Draw 9/4 Rep of Ireland 15/8
His clarification, while couched in respectful terms, amounted pretty much to saying the same thing in a different way: The Irish, he suggested, have a game plan, from which they don’t deviate too much.
You suspect Martin O’Neill would hardly think it worthwhile getting into an argument over this point. His take on the challenge facing his team in Copenhagen tonight — when the scoring of an away goal could be vital — suggested strongly that something like ‘Cardiff: The Sequel’ could be on the cards, not least because a goal was non-negotiable that night too.
“Historically speaking, the Republic of Ireland, even with some of the great players that have played in the past, have not been great goalscorers,” he observed. “That doesn’t mean we can’t score out here. We can. We’ve got the capability of doing it. The away goal is obviously important and it’s something we think we’re capable of. So we’re going to go for it. We’re just going to go for it. Now it’s easy to say we’re going to go for it, but doesn’t mean gung-ho or whatever the case may be. But we need to get on the front foot at some stage.
“As we were against Wales. The opening 15 minutes we were on the back foot, naturally, because they’re playing at home and we’ve had to defend strongly just to get a foothold in the game. We started to do that and then the game levelled out. Then we scored the goal. And, of course, we had to defend strongly in the last 25 minutes. Which we did.
“We’ve had tough games away from home in this competition, starting against Serbia going right through. We’ve remained unbeaten away from home which is no mean feat. That’s a testament to the sort of character that’s in the team. But this is a different test again. And one that we have to be up for.”
Reflecting on how he thinks the development of his team over the last two campaigns has helped them prepare for this defining challenge, O’Neill said: “I think through experience the players have matured. I think there’s a good belief in the camp that maybe didn’t exist a couple of years ago. A sort of inner self-belief that’s not flaunted or anything like that but a belief that we know we can go out and compete. We know what we have to do. We know we must compete for almost everything at every given minute. And while every single international side has some limitations, we’re going to try and stay as strong as we possibly can, play to our strengths, which is the most important thing, and use the experience we’ve gained over the last couple of years to some good effect.”
Asked if, ahead of the two-part showdown against the Danes, he now felt that the same quiet conviction he’d expressed about overcoming Moldova and Wales in the final group qualifiers, the manager allowed himself a smile.
“I think one excellent prediction is good enough. These are tough games for us. We’ve got ourselves into this position now and we don’t want to die wondering. Over the two matches, let’s try to find ourselves in front.”
At times there was an almost chuckle brothers feel to the Danish press conference at the Parken Stadium yesterday, with the upbeat trio of manager Age Hareide, Kasper Schmeichel, and Christian Eriksen doing a good job of winning the hearts and minds of visiting journalists with talk about the inspirational Roy Keane, the inspirational Martin O’Neill, the fighting spirit of the Irish team — “physical but not dirty”, the gaffer clarified — and even the attractive character traits of the Irish as a race.
Only once did the charm offensive subside — that was when Eriksen let slip what you suspect the Danes probably really think of this Irish team. Asked if he worried that the home side could be in for a frustrating night, the Spurs man’s reply had an edge to it.
“If you have a team that wants to play and a team that doesn’t want to play, then the game will be dragged out,” he said. “For them, nil-nil is probably a good result whereas we want to score goals and create chances.”
And for once, the manager wasn’t quite on the same page as his players. “So long as they don’t score goals, 0-0 would be OK,” offered Hareide.
“Then we have 120 minutes in Dublin to score. The 30 extra minutes increases the possibility of scoring the away goal, the important away goal. But we don’t speculate on that. Every time we walk out here, we want to win. And every time we walk out for an away game, we want to win.”
And, so, naturally, does his counterpart.
“You’re in a qualification play-off game, it’s going to be tough,” said the Ireland manager. “They are the seeded side and I suppose the expectation will be on them to go through. But we have overcome adversity in the last couple of years and we are going to try again.
“I think they’ve got some fine players, and so have we, we have as well. The young man to my left-hand side (Robbie Brady) is pretty decent. They have some big players playing in the major leagues around Europe and that’s obviously a big advantage, but we have overcome these disadvantages in the past.
“It’s a great game for us. As far as we’re concerned, qualifying for the Euros was a great achievement and some of the performances in France were great. Getting there is big, but the World Cup is something else, so if we could make it, it would be fantastic.”
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