Heartbreak of Denmark will have to be replaced with hope of play-offs for Ireland

James McClean and Mick McCarthy trudge off after last night's draw with Denmark
Picture by PA 

2020 European Qualifying Group D: Republic of Ireland 1 Denmark 1

A DESPAIRING night in the Irish capital, the Republic of Ireland threw everything at the Danes and at one stage the comeback looked on – but a desperate silence descended on the Aviva Stadium at the final whistle.

The visitors breathed a huge sigh of relief. A draw was enough to see them qualify for next summer’s Euro 2020 finals, while the Irish will tread the familiar terrain of the play-offs in March. Roared on by a passionate home crowd, it looked as though Mick McCarthy’s men might chisel out the winner after Matt Doherty powered home a header with five minutes remaining to cancel out Martin Braithwaite’s clever opener on 73 minutes.  

The south Dublin venue was rocking. The threatening scent of fireworks, a roar that reminded you of by-gone days of the old place, big Shane Duffy up front, David McGoldrick throwing shapes and the Danes on the ropes. This was it. Denmark were there for the taking. 

The night had all the ingredients of an historic comeback. But the Danes parked the bus, put their bodies and heads on the line and managed to hold on to the draw that they needed. Last night’s performance was probably the best under McCarthy in this campaign, which bodes well for the play-offs, but they will rue their nervy start last night and the fact that Denmark came with a reputation that they didn’t quite live up to.

Despite the goal-scoring exploits of Callum Robinson and Seani Maguire in last Thursday’s friendly win over New Zealand, McCarthy opted for the versatile Alan Browne for arguably the only place up for grabs in what has been a very settled line-up in this qualification campaign.

Conor Hourihane won his midfield place back after being dropped for last month’s Switzerland clash in Geneva. The Aston Villa man posted a grim display in Tbilisi a few days earlier but has been one of the success stories under McCarthy and was given the nod last night.   

As expected, Matt Doherty slotted in at right back for the suspended Seamus Coleman with Shane Duffy borrowing the captain’s armband from the Killybegs native for last night’s winner-takes-all showdown. David ‘Didsy’ McGoldrick returned to lead the front line after missing last month’s double-header against Georgia and Switzerland.

Like their hosts, the Danes were able to field a familiar line-up with 10 of the side that faced the Irish in Copenhagen in June starting last night in Dublin. The only debate for visiting manager Age Hareide was whether to play Lasse Schone or Pierre Emile Holbjerg alongside Thomas Delaney in central midfield.

Hareide went for Schone in the end, but Holbjerg was thrust into the action on 13 minutes after Danish metronome Delaney limped out of the action with a nasty looking ankle injury. Bustling striker Andreas Cornelius was also gone too after a clash of heads with John Egan and moments later limped down the tunnel with a hamstring injury.

The two enforced first-half changes certainly didn’t help Denmark’s cause - who seemed content to settle for a share of the spoils from the first whistle - but after the opening exchanges the packed Aviva Stadium could sense the visitors were a pale shadow of the side that walloped the Republic 5-1 in that devastating World Cup play-off two years ago.

Christian Eriksen was living proof that when you down tools for your club, you can’t treat form like a light switch. Between the pair of them, Glenn Whelan and Conor Hourihane managed to push Denmark’s danger man to the periphery and James McClean gave him a five-yard head start and still beat him in a foot race in the closing stages.

Indeed, it probably took the Irish players a half hour before they realised the Danes were nothing special and that Group D rivals Switzerland were a far superior, more athletic side. Up to that point, there was plenty of huffing and puffing from the home side but nothing that resembled an opening despite some neat touches from McGoldrick. Hendrick was usually the man closest to McGoldrick but the Burnley man flattered to deceive in the attacking midfield role. 

Slowly, though, belief grew in Irish limbs.  In the 34th minute, Hourihane latched on to McGoldrick’s 10-yard pass across the Danish penalty area, but the Cork man’s side-footed effort lacked pace and direction and was an easy collect for Kasper Schmeichel. The chance, however, did show the Danes were far from impregnable.

Moments later, McGoldrick chased Whelan’s clever ball down the right channel to set up Browne with a volleyed chance that breezed past Schemeichel’s right upright. And there was time for another half chance before the break when McGoldrick tried his luck from distance. While his long distance shot cleared the Danish crossbar, the Sheffield United striker’s effort injected more energy into McCarthy's men.

A dangerous Hourihane cross had Schmeichel all over the place just after the restart as the home side began to find some rhythm in their play. The hugely impressive Enda Stevens found McGoldrick with a low cross but Ireland’s best player on the night turned and fired over.

And just when the home side had momentum and looked like the only team capable of breaking the deadlock, the Danes went and scored in the 73rd minute. Doherty, who drove at the visiting defence in the second half, allowed Braithwaite to ghost in on his blind side to toe poke Henrik Dalsgaard’s dangerous cross past Randolph.  

But still the Irish kept driving forward. McGoldrick was like an eel, twisting and turning and giving the Danish defence all sorts of trouble. But, in the final analysis, the support cast wasn’t strong enough. 

McCarthy opted for Callum Robinson and Seani Maguire rather than rookie teenager Troy Parrott to turn the tide, but it was the Stevens-Doherty axis that hauled the Republic back into the game. Playing more like a winger than a full-back, Stevens found Doherty at the back post with a sublime cross and the power in the header beat the helpless Schmeichel.

Five minutes of normal time plus four minutes of stoppage-time to find the winner and send the Republic through to next summer’s finals, but it never came. The ball bobbled and ricocheted around the Danish penalty area but the net never rippled. The Danes were lucky in the end. But McCarthy's battlers are still alive. 

The play-offs are next up. Isn't it always with the Irish...  

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