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Dublin: 12 °C Friday 22 February, 2019
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He's admitted he can't buy a goal right now, but Shane Long needs to start for Ireland

Tuesday’s second leg against Denmark would be the ideal place to break his duck.

Long shaking Kasper Schmeichel's hand after the final whistle last night.
Long shaking Kasper Schmeichel's hand after the final whistle last night.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

AT THE HALFWAY point of Ireland’s World Cup play-off, the tie is still very much alive for both nations.

Denmark manager Age Hareide and Irish counterpart Martin O’Neill will be content overall with how last night went.

The home side may have wasted a couple of great opportunities to take a one-goal advantage to Dublin, but their Norwegian head coach admitted during the week that he would be satisfied with a draw as long as Ireland didn’t score.

Equally, the Ireland boss must be pleased with his team’s ability to keep clean sheets in games where the stakes are sky high. That’s three on the trot now and six overall during this qualification campaign.

Goalkeeper Darren Randolph put in one of his finest performances at international level and the central defensive partnership of Shane Duffy and Ciaran Clark continues to blossom.

The gameplan to sit back and soak up the pressure proved a success, but where Ireland let themselves down was in possession. While Denmark captain Simon Kjaer showed how an accurate diagonal ball from deep can be useful, the Irish players continuously lumped it long without even attempting to pick out a team-mate.

With wide players James McClean and Callum O’Dowda often dropping deep to help out their full-backs, it left Daryl Murphy with the undesirable task of chasing down lost causes for the 74 minutes up until he was withdrawn.

The 34-year-old striker’s strengths lie in his physical presence, his heading and the ability to hold up the ball, and although he will always put in an honest shift, chasing balls into the corners is certainly not his strong point.

Murphy’s main competitor for a starting berth in the second leg will be the out-of-sorts Shane Long, especially as Sean Maguire is injured and Scott Hogan has yet to be tested at this level.

The Tipperary man has never been a prolific goalscorer but enjoyed purple patches in the past — most notably in the run-up to Euro 2016.

At present, however, Long is going through one of the most difficult periods of his career. The late cameo off the bench last night made it 29 appearances for Ireland and Southampton combined since he found the back of the net way back in February.

Shane Long reacts to a missed chance A frustrated Long after spurning an opportunity against Moldova. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

His confidence will be understandably low and Martin O’Neill revealed after the win over Moldova that the player himself admitted he can’t “buy a goal” at the moment. In the latter stages of the first leg, Long didn’t appear to have much belief in a speculative effort that was blocked, before he snatched at it a second time with his weaker left foot.

That said, for all his problems in front of goal, he could prove an invaluable asset if given the nod to start at the Aviva Stadium. Danish centre halves Kjaer and Andreas Bjelland were allowed far too much time in possession, and Long has proved a nuisance for defenders over the years with his running off the ball.

He would offer an outlet for his team-mates if, as expected, route one balls are played and if you’re looking for a good omen, Long scored against Denmark goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel in a 2-0 win over Leicester City three years ago this month.

What a time it would be to break his goal duck by putting another past him at Lansdowne Road in two days’ time.

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Southampton v Leicester City - St. Mary's Celebrating with Graziano Pelle after beating Schmeichel in the Leicester goal. Source: Chris Ison

With no fresh injury worries to deal with and David Meyler returning from suspension, O’Neill will most likely bring the Hull City midfielder back into his starting line-up.

Callum O’Dowda’s selection was well-deserved but came as a slight surprise nonetheless. He was unable to show the ability his possesses in the final third and would be favourite to drop out of the team ahead of experienced pair Jeff Hendrick and Robbie Brady, who were both below par.

Which brings us back to the age-old Wes Hoolahan debate. Eamon Dunphy was banging that drum yet again on the RTÉ panel last night, and while his constant championing of the Dubliner became tireless a long time ago, there is certainly some merit to the argument.

O’Neill accepted in his post-match press conference that Ireland will need to show more creativity in Dublin, and the Norwich City schemer would undoubtedly improve that side of their game.

But there is only an outside chance that he will put his trust in the 35-year-old, and an appearance off the bench looks far more realistic.

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Poll: after last night’s result, do you think Ireland will get to the World Cup ?

‘We might have to score two… we’ll have to show a bit more creativity’

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Ben Blake

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