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Murphy or Long, Christian belief and more Copenhagen talking points

Denmark stand between Ireland and a place at the World Cup for the first time since 2002.

– Paul Dollery reports from Copenhagen

THE FIRST LEG of Ireland’s crucial 2018 World Cup play-off against Denmark takes place this evening at Copenhagen’s Parken Stadium (7.45pm Irish time).

Happy travels

James McClean celebrates scoring his sides opening goal James McClean celebrates after scoring the winner for Ireland against Wales in Cardiff. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

With Ireland’s only home wins in Group D coming against Georgia and Moldova, two big victories on the road made the difference in keeping Martin O’Neill’s side on track to qualify for next summer’s tournament in Russia. As one reporter quipped after last month’s win against Wales in Cardiff, perhaps Ireland should have asked Uefa for permission to play both legs of their play-off away from home.

The second part of this play-off will take place in Dublin on Tuesday evening, but Ireland’s recent away results should give them cause for optimism tonight. The highlight for Denmark from their Group E campaign was a 4-0 triumph over Poland, but they did also suffer a shock 1-0 defeat to Montenegro at a half-empty Parken Stadium.

Ireland have produced their best performances and results in their bid to qualify for a first World Cup since 2002 while on their travels — with the exception of a disappointing draw in Georgia. After taking a point from eventual group winners Serbia and overcoming Moldova, the Boys in Green recorded memorable wins in Austria and Wales. Another positive away result tonight could give them the upper hand for the second leg in three days’ time.

Christian belief

Christian Eriksen Ireland will need to keep a close eye on Denmark's Christian Eriksen. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Denmark are by no means a one-man band. The likes of Werder Bremen midfielder Thomas Delaney and Feyenoord striker Nicolai Jorgensen are capable of causing problems for the visitors tonight, while Sevilla’s Simon Kjaer (Denmark’s captain) will shore things up at the back. However, there’s no doubt about who possesses the biggest threat to Ireland’s World Cup hopes in Age Hareide’s side.

Despite being just 25, Christian Eriksen is set to win his 74th cap for his country. The Tottenham Hotspur playmaker has scored eight goals in his last eight international appearances. With three assists in qualifying, in addition to the eight he scored, Eriksen had a hand in over half of his side’s 20 goals in Group E.

While the locals here in Copenhagen are seemingly respectful of the challenge Ireland will pose, they don’t expect Martin O’Neill’s side to deny them a place in Russia. The belief among Danish supporters is that Eriksen will steer them back to the World Cup, having missed out on the 2014 tournament in Brazil. Nullifying his impact is likely to form a substantial part of Ireland’s gameplan.

“Eriksen is the player most likely to hurt Ireland over the two legs,” former Ireland international Kevin Kilbane told ESPN. “I was speaking to Jan Molby [former Denmark and Liverpool midfielder] recently and he told me that Eriksen’s role has changed under Age Hareide and he now plays in a more advanced position than under the previous coach.

“Back then, Eriksen would drop deep and pick up the ball from the centre-halves, but he has now been handed the freedom to play much further forward and he has more influence in the final third. That’s where he is at his most dangerous, so Ireland will have to work out how to stop him getting on the ball in those areas.”

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Yellow fever

Ireland fans The threat of suspension for Tuesday's second leg hangs over 10 Ireland players. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

According to assistant manager Roy Keane, it shouldn’t make much of a difference to how the Irish players approach the game. However, Keane and Martin O’Neill will certainly be concerned that 10 members of their squad are at risk of being suspended for Tuesday night’s second leg at the Aviva Stadium.

The list of players who have carried a yellow card from the Group D campaign to Copenhagen includes goalkeeper Darren Randolph and the entire first-choice back four: Cyrus Christie, Shane Duffy, Ciaran Clark and Stephen Ward. The same applies to James McClean, Glenn Whelan, Harry Arter, Aiden McGeady and Daryl Murphy.

Another booking tonight will rule them out of the return game in Dublin. Stand-in captain David Meyler will return from suspension on Tuesday, but given that Ireland are already without Seamus Coleman, Richard Keogh, James McCarthy, Jonathan Walters and Sean Maguire due to injuries, the Boys in Green can ill afford to contend with additional absentees.

“Football is a physical game but you don’t want lads picking up daft yellow cards for kicking the ball away, like we’ve received in the campaign,” Keane said this week. “Meyler got a yellow card in the last minute [against Wales] but I think if the ball is there to be won, then you have to go for it. If you mistime it then you suffer the consequences. You can’t be putting it in a player’s mindset not to be going for a ball. It’s all part of the game — the physical side of it.”

Who leads the line?

Daryl Murphy celebrates his first goal with Shane Long and David Meyler Shane Long, Daryl Murphy and David Meyler celebrate Ireland's opening goal against Moldova last month. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

Martin O’Neill is likely to go with one main striker leading the line tonight, which should result in a duel between Daryl Murphy and Shane Long for that role. With three goals so far in the qualifying campaign and six in the Championship this season for Nottingham Forest, Murphy is the man in form. However, only James McClean has played more games for Ireland during the O’Neill era than Long, who hasn’t scored a goal since he was on target for Southampton against Sunderland back in February.

Denmark will enjoy the majority of the possession tonight so much of the striker’s role is likely to revolve around closing down defenders on the ball — or chasing shadows, for want of a better expression — as well as running the channels and being ready to capitalise on any opportunities that originate from counter attacks. To that end, Long’s pace may give him the edge. However, Murphy’s physicality and aerial ability at set pieces may also tip the balance in his favour.

If Long — who missed out on last month’s win against Wales due to injury — does get the nod at the expense of Murphy, the only other change from Cardiff is expected to be a return for Glenn Whelan in midfield to replace the suspended David Meyler. Having been injury concerns throughout the week, Stephen Ward and Jeff Hendrick both look set to be passed fit.

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Paul Dollery

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