Updated at 09.30
1. Can Ireland silence Danish critics?
PIONE SISTO WAS a frustrated man after being part of the Denmark side that drew 0-0 with Ireland in Saturday’s first leg.
Perhaps part of his annoyance stemmed from the knowledge that he had missed the game’s best chance, but the 22-year-old Celta Vigo youngster reserved some harsh words for the Irish team.
“There are no easy games today,” Sisto told Tipsbladet (via SportsJoe). “The teams who are having difficulty playing soccer, they do just what Ireland did today.
“It’s a wall you’re going through, and it’s very hard. We also tried with some longer balls, to many of the taller players we have up front, and we managed to get a single chance to Yussuf [Poulsen], but we could not add to that.
“It’s hard. We know what’s going to happen in the away game too — it’s going to be much the same — so I think we should be smart.”
Speaking during the pre-match press conference at the Aviva Stadium yesterday, Denmark coach Age Hareide was not exactly glowing in his view of Ireland either.
If you look at the stats from qualification, nothing seems to go in that (forward) direction,” he said. “(Ireland) played better away from home than at home and scored more goals away from home.
“I have seen the matches they played here against Serbia — they lost 1-0 — they drew against Wales 0-0 and then won away to Wales 1-0 and had a 2-2 in Serbia. They were the key matches for them in qualification.
“I think they’ll play in the same way. I don’t expect them to go higher than they did in Copenhagen, they just want us to make a mistake. That’s okay.
“I haven’t got the patience to play like that. We will try to attack Ireland and try to get a goal, and then we’ll take it from there.”
And perhaps most provocatively of all, Denmark captain Simon Kjaer described Ireland’s play as “primitive football” and claimed Martin O’Neill’s men are “scared” of his side.
These quips are perhaps to be expected ahead of such a tense occasion, and Ireland have not been averse to making them either, as David Meyler recently claimed the Danes cannot match his side’s heart and desire.
Yet as scathing as the Danish assessment of their opponents may sound to Irish ears, there is undoubtedly at least an element of truth to the comments.
Not once did Ireland look as if they had any interest in playing constructive football on Saturday at Parken Stadium.
Instead, they were happy for it to be a backs-to-wall performance, while carrying the faint hope that a set piece might bounce kindly and enable them to secure an away goal.
Overall though, an Irish win would have been extremely harsh on the Danish, with the visitors only creating one clear-cut chance in the entire 90 minutes, when Cyrus Christie burst through on goal but could not lift the ball over an alert Kasper Schmeichel.
The Danish coach’s criticism is also hardly unjust. In their five World Cup qualifiers at the Aviva Stadium so far, Ireland have won just twice — against Georgia and Moldova — although they have also only lost once in 13 competitive matches on home turf.
From an attacking perspective, there is a strong case to be made that the Boys in Green are the worst Uefa side to have made it to this point. In Group D, they registered just 12 goals in 10 games, nearly half of which were scored against the worst team in the group, Moldova.
No one in Europe who has got this far (i.e. either advanced to the play-offs or the World Cup proper) has registered fewer goals than the Boys in Green.
On the other hand, only five European teams — England, Croatia, Portugal, Spain and Germany — have conceded less than the six goals Ireland have surrendered.
So Hareide, whose side have won their last three consecutive matches on the road, is right to suggest Ireland’s game is based primarily on a strong defence. Nonetheless, that asset alone will not be enough for them to prevail at the Aviva this evening.
Now, Ireland must show they are capable of producing quality down the other end of the field against highly respected opposition. They must show that, contrary to Sisto’s claims, they are more than just ‘a wall’.
2. Robbie Brady needs to do better
The fact that Robbie Brady is joint-top of Ireland’s assists with Wes Hoolahan is telling, particularly given that the latter has only started four qualifiers and appeared off the bench in one.
The duo have created four of Ireland’s 12 goals overall. With Hoolahan expected to again begin the game as a substitute, the onus will likely be on Brady to be Ireland’s main creative force.
Yet since Euro 2016, the Burnley star has struggled to show his best form at international level.
On Saturday night in Copenhagen, according to the official Uefa website, Ireland completed just 124 passes — only slightly more than one per minute.
Despite his reputation as a technically accomplished player, Brady was just as culpable as anyone in overhitting simple balls and generally showing poor decision-making when in possession.
What was perhaps most disappointing though was his set-piece execution. Brady can be superb from dead-ball situations — back in November 2014, Ireland’s 4-1 win over the USA – the game where he really consolidated his place in the team — featured a stunning free kick from the Dubliner.
The former Manchester United youngster produced a similarly spectacular effort last season, as Burnley earned a surprise 1-1 draw against then-Premier League leaders Chelsea.
So the fact that he is plainly capable of such deadly accuracy makes nights like last Saturday all the more frustration.
Ireland almost never looked like scoring from open play, so a corner or free kick seemed the team’s only realistic chance of finding the net in Copenhagen. But Brady perennially disappointed on this front, as a potentially vital away goal eluded Martin O’Neill’s men.
That is not to say this evening won’t be different though. The 25-year-old Dubliner, having been in and out of the team last season, has shown improved form for a Burnley side currently level on points with Liverpool and Arsenal in the Premier League. Brady has started all 11 of the Clarets’ league matches so far, only getting substituted once.
One of Martin O’Neill’s supposed managerial strengths is getting the best out of the players at his disposal and tonight, he will be hoping to inspire Brady into producing the type of accomplished all-round display that the Irish fans haven’t seen since the Euros last summer.
3. The bench could be crucial
From an Irish perspective in particular, substitutions are likely to be crucial this evening.
Wes Hoolahan and Shane Long are probably the two biggest calls in terms of whether to play them from the start or bring them on later in the match, when their opponents are tiring and the game likely becomes more open.
If Hoolahan starts tonight, he is almost guaranteed not to finish.
It is more than two years since the Norwich player completed 90 minutes of a competitive match for his country — his man-of-the-match display back in October 2015 during Ireland’s famous 1-0 win over reigning world champions Germany was the last time he was not either brought off or introduced into the action.
At 35, the evidence suggests Martin O’Neill no longer feels Hoolahan is capable of coping with the intensity of international football for a full 90 minutes.
So the question is: will the Dubliner be needed more in the opening stages of the game, to help Ireland gain some semblance of control of the play, or in the final half hour or so, when the outcome is likely to be still hanging in the balance?
The last time Hoolahan started — the 1-0 defeat to Serbia at the Aviva — it did not go particularly well, though the other three games he played from the start were Irish victories (albeit two of those were against Moldova).
His appearances from the bench, however, have produced mixed results. He famously set up Brady’s winner after entering the action in the 77th minute against Italy at the Euros, but had minimal impact in his two appearances off the bench since then against France in Lyon and Austria at the Aviva.
Like Hoolahan, Shane Long also made an impact off the bench on one particularly memorable occasion, as he scored a brilliant winner in the 1-0 victory over Germany that contributed hugely to Ireland’s successful qualification for the Euros.
Daryl Murphy gives the team greater presence up front, though Long’s pace provides the opposition with a different challenge to deal with.
The Tipperary native has not scored for club or country since last February, so it would be quite a story if he was the man to inspire Ireland to victory this evening and send them to Russia in the process.
So as was the case in big wins over Germany and Italy, Ireland’s use of the bench could be crucial in determining the outcome of tonight’s all-important clash.
4. Eriksen will be more suited to the away leg
Age Hareide is clearly eager to take some pressure off star man Christian Eriksen.
The Tottenham player, widely regarded as one of the Premier League’s best attacking talents, could only show glimpses of his customary footballing brilliance during Saturday’s stalemate in Copenhagen.
A poor Ciaran Clark clearance enabled the tie’s only world-class player to fizz a shot in from distance that Darren Randolph could only parry to Sisto, who proceeded to place the ball narrowly wide of the post with the goal at his mercy.
Yet for the most part, Eriksen struggled to find time and space in the first leg, as he was successfully smothered by a resilient Irish defence.
Asked whether he expected more tonight from the 25-year-old attacking midfielder, the Denmark coach insisted his entire team needed to be better.
This second leg, however, could suit Eriksen more. Ireland, at some point surely, will have to come out and attack their opponents.
The hosts’ greater ambition will therefore leave more space on the counter for Denmark’s number 10 to exploit, and the former Ajax youngster is certainly adept in these type of situations.
He has finished second in the Premier League assists table two seasons on the bounce, and he has already scored four goals for Spurs this season, including a clinical finish in the highly impressive 3-1 Champions League defeat of Real Madrid.
For a long time, Denmark by all accounts struggled to get the best out of Eriksen, who already has 77 caps and 19 goals for his country.
But this campaign has been a different story, with the star man flourishing under new coach Hareide. Notwithstanding the weekend’s subdued display, he has eight goals in his last nine appearances for the Danes, also chipping in with three assists.
If he can add to that impressive tally at the Aviva this evening, then it will surely be Denmark rather than Ireland who are going to the World Cup in the summer.
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