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Dublin: 1°C Friday 7 May 2021

Have Ireland blown their best chance of qualifying?

Plus, were there signs of progress despite the disappointing result?

Ireland players show their disappointment as the Danes celebrate.
Ireland players show their disappointment as the Danes celebrate.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

1. Have Ireland blown their best chance of qualifying?

WHILE THERE WAS a general sense that Ireland delivered an improved performance last night, it is also fair to say that the result against Denmark significantly diminishes the team’s chances of qualifying for Euro 2020.

It feels very long ago indeed that the Danes’ slip up in Georgia put Mick McCarthy’s men in a seemingly strong position to reach next summer’s tournament.

Six points from their final three games against Georgia, Switzerland and Denmark would have been enough to seal qualification, while even after the disappointing draw in Tbilisi, three points against either the Swiss or the Danes would have got the team over the line.

That task was hardly an easy one, but what lies ahead for Ireland is now arguably even more difficult.

Ireland will have to beat two of Wales, Slovakia, Bosnia or Northern Ireland to qualify (full permutations here).

Moreover, their one-off play-off semi-final is certain to take place away from home, while they may also have to travel if they reach the final five days later — whether they potentially do or not will be confirmed during Friday’s qualifying draw in Nyon.

Even picking up one away win against a strong side is not something too many Irish supporters would be overly optimistic about. Victories on the road for Irish teams are notoriously rare.

Ireland did manage two highly creditable away triumphs under Martin O’Neill — earning notable victories against Austria and Wales in the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign. Yet before those games, you had to go back more than 30 years and the 1987 win over Scotland to find the last time Ireland beat a genuine rival for qualification in a competitive fixture on their travels.

Ireland’s only competitive win on the road since McCarthy’s second spell in charge began was the rather nervy 1-0 victory in Gibraltar.

Whether they can emulate that feat against a side of the calibre of Wales, who earned back-to-back Nations League victories over the Boys in Green last year, or Bosnia, who boast the top-class likes of Miralem Pjanić and Edin Dzeko in their squad, is something even the most optimistic Irish fan won’t be especially confident about.

2. Below-par Danes

Ireland matched Denmark in almost every department last night, but this game may be looked back upon as a significant missed opportunity.

It’s fair to say the Boys in Green were better than usual, but the Danes certainly underperformed.

Denmark are now unbeaten in their last 17 World Cup/Euro qualifiers, so an Irish win was always going to be a big ask.

Yet there was a sense on Monday, which grew as the first half developed, that the hosts had caught their opponents on an off night.

The visitors were nowhere near as sharp or clinical as they had been two years previously in the 5-1 play-off win. Within 33 minutes, they had lost two of their starting XI through injury, while their best player, Christian Eriksen, looked a pale imitation of the player who scored a hat-trick at the Aviva not long ago.

Åge Hareide insisted the Tottenham star’s indifferent club form would not affect his performances at international level, but while he showed the odd glimpse of brilliance last night, the 27-year-old playmaker operated on the periphery of the game for the most part.

Meanwhile, the Danes in general appeared far from upbeat ahead of this clash. Last June, it was confirmed that Kasper Hjulmand would succeed Hareide as manager after the Euros, a decision the 66-year-old has not been shy in voicing his disappointment with.

This issue hanging over the team is perhaps another reason for their underwhelming showing, with Hareide admitting afterwards that his men played badly and were lucky to get away with the draw they needed to qualify.

3. Signs of progress despite disappointing result?

There was so much that felt familiar about last night.

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Somewhat predictably, for the fifth time in six encounters over the past two years, Ireland v Denmark ended in a draw.

Yet to suggest there has been no change since the Martin O’Neill era would be unfair.

Just four players who started in that infamous 5-1 loss in the World Cup play-offs retained their places in the starting XI last night — Darren Randolph, Shane Duffy, Jeff Hendrick and James McClean.

Similarly, there were only four survivors from Martin O’Neill’s last game in charge, the 0-0 Nations League draw with Denmark — Randolph, Duffy, Hendrick and Enda Stevens.

Last night, Ireland did not get the result that they needed to qualify, but there were at least signs of encouragement and progress.

It was the first time in six matches that Ireland managed a goal from open play against the Danes. Matt Doherty converted Enda Stevens’ superb cross, as two players that were usually overlooked by O’Neill combined to get the hosts back in the game.

According to the BBC, Ireland had 52% possession, compared with 41% in the 5-1 thrashing and 24% in the 0-0 bore draw that proved to be O’Neill’s final match in charge. Moreover, Ireland managed three shots on target to Denmark’s two, while they didn’t muster any in their former manager’s swansong and could only hit the target twice in the play-off defeat. In addition, the Danes managed only two shots on target, in comparison to 10 in the 5-1 win.

There were still familiar failings, of course. Ireland lacked composure at key moments in the final third and elsewhere — inept finishing and decision-making cost them ultimately, while occasional needless fouls slowed the game down.

It was probably their best performance of the group stages and surely their strongest display of the six against Denmark, but it ultimately wasn’t enough to secure them the win they so desperately craved.

4. McGoldrick emphasises his importance to this Irish team

david-mcgoldrick-dejected-after-conceding-a-goal Ireland's David McGoldrick dejected after conceding a goal. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Perhaps the most important change Mick McCarthy has made since taking over as manager has been to bring David McGoldrick in from the cold at international level.

The Sheffield United striker, while he has scored just once for Ireland, has become a key player under McCarthy.

When O’Neill was manager, he wasn’t even making squads towards the end of the Derry native’s reign and his international career appeared to be over.

Yet during this campaign, McGoldrick has been particularly excellent. His absence was conspicuous as Ireland toiled away to Georgia and Switzerland last month, while he was deservedly named man of the match for his performance against Denmark last night. His strength and hold-up play was superb, and he shone in the role of the lone frontman — a position Boys in Green players have generally struggled to make any impact in over the years.

Unfortunately from an Irish perspective, their first-choice attacker turns 32 before the end of the month. Shane Long, who has 82 caps compared with McGoldrick’s 12, is less than a year older than his fellow forward.

Provided they stick to the current schedule, the beginning of the 2022 World Cup will coincide with McGoldrick’s 35th birthday. There is a strong chance that the coming Euros represents his last opportunity to play a major tournament at international level, having missed out on the squad for Euro 2016.

It would be a fitting climax to his all-too-fleeting time in the sun with Ireland if the Blades striker was to inspire the side to glory in the play-offs and get that coveted Euros spot.

It would prove a brilliant conclusion too for McCarthy, the man who placed so much faith in the previously ostracised attacker.

Yet there is invariably little room for sentiment in football and a growing danger exists that McGoldrick’s Indian summer will not be extended until June.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy  / reports from the Aviva Stadium

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