Stephen Ward trudges off the pitch with the scoreboard showing 5-1. James Crombie/INPHO

Ireland's system horribly exposed and the talking points from tonight's play-off defeat

Christian Eriksen proved his worth, while Martin O’Neill’s future in the job has come into question.

Heaviest defeat of the O’Neill era

IT’S THE HOPE that kills you.

After frustrating the Danes in Copenhagen over the weekend, tonight appeared to be a genuine opportunity to reach the World Cup finals for the first time in 16 years.

Age Hareide’s men were far from a top side, we convinced ourselves, and talk in the build-up of Christian Eriksen’s place among the best footballers on earth was exaggerated.

You could hardly have asked for a better start as Ireland went in front inside six minutes through some good fortune and Shane Duffy’s aerial presence.

From that point on, however, the evening began to quickly unravel and by the final whistle the Boys in Green had been handed their heaviest competitive defeat in five years — when Germany put six past Keiren Westwood at the same venue.

Where do you start with the post-mortem? The system didn’t work, the players were guilty of giving away sloppy goals through basic errors and the substitutions were questionable.

The day began with thoughts of Russia next summer but their latest showing, this Ireland team doesn’t deserve to be anywhere near a World Cup.

Eriksen shows his class this time around

The Tottenham Hotspur star had a couple of pot shots in the first leg but, overall, he remained on the periphery at Parken Stadium.

Eriksen was phenomenal for Denmark in the group stages — with eight goals and three assists — and Saturday proved to be a rare off-night as his class shone through in Dublin.

His terrific first-time strike to finish off a lightening-quick counter attack put the visitors in front just three minutes after Andreas Christensen’s equaliser, and the 25-year-old doubled his tally with a left-footed drive midway through the second half.

Stephen Ward’s mistake allowed him to rifle his third into the top corner and complete the hat-trick, and there was even time left for Nicklas Bendtner to enjoy a goalscoring cameo — coming off the bench to score from the penalty spot before celebrating in front of the delirous visiting fans.

Ireland get tactics all wrong

O’Neill opted to stick with the same starting XI that ground out a 0-0 draw with the exception of captain David Meyler, who returned from a one-match suspension in place of Callum O’Dowda.

That meant retaining the services of Daryl Murphy up front and leaving Shane Long on the bench. 34-year-old Murphy had run himself into the ground without little success before coming off 74 minutes into the first leg.

This time, however, James McClean was given a central role up alongside the Nottingham Forest striker in a 4-4-2 diamond with Harry Arter at the base of midfield, the returning David Meyler on the right side of midfield and Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick making up the quartet.

And Ireland started like a house on fire — pressing from the front, doubling up to win back possession and scoring early on. But after the goal, their formation failed badly and Denmark were afforded far too much space in the centre of the park.

Acknowledging the error and trailing 2-1 at the interval, the Ireland boss withdrew Meyler and Arter to bring on Wes Hoolahan and Aiden McGeady in an effort to add some much-needed creativity.

Instead, it left them even more exposed and Denmark picked off their opponents in the second half.

O’Neill vows to bounce back

Martin O’Neill during the closing stages of the game O'Neill alongside Age Hareide. Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

It was announced last month that the current management team had agreed contract extensions with the FAI ahead of the play-offs — although they haven’t yet been signed. Now that Ireland won’t be taking part in the World Cup, questions about whether O’Neill is still the right man for the job were inevitable and the issue was raised tonight during his post-match press conference.

The former Sunderland and Aston Villa manager has suffered his fair share of demoralising losses down through the years, but it was evident that this result has clearly affected him. Having walked out of a tetchy interview with RTÉ’s Tony O’Donoghue moments earlier, O’Neill took his place at the top of the Aviva Stadium’s press conference room.

The issue of his future was raised and he took exception to being asked if his luck has finally run out. Although the 65-year-old said he will speak with FAI chief executive John Delaney about going forward in the job, there was no indication that he plans to step down after four years.

Changing of the guard now inevitable

So the latest two-year cycle ends on a bitterly-sour note and, with the Euro 2020 qualifiers not beginning until March 2019, you would expect quite a few of the current Ireland squad to call time on their international careers in the coming weeks and months.

John O’Shea (35) is likely to bow out, while Wes Hoolahan (35), Jon Walters (34) and Glenn Whelan (33) could all follow suit.

Although younger players like Scott Hogan, Sean Maguire, Conor Hourihane, Kevin Long and Matt Doherty have joined up with the group in recent times, those departures are sure to leave a significant void.

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