A bore draw but slight progress made for Republic of Ireland ahead of Wales clash
Nations League Cup Group B4: Republic of Ireland 0 Denmark 0
THE Republic of Ireland and Denmark conspired to produce arguably the worst game of football ever played on the international stage in Dublin on Saturday night – and the Irish have been involved in some stinkers over the years.
In terms of dourness, this Nations League Cup game was off the scale. It was impossibly drab, the kind of spectacle that could put you off the ‘beautiful’ game for life.
There were, however, extenuating circumstances.
After conceding nine goals in their last two competitive outings – five against the Danes last November and four against Wales last month – it was no surprise Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill ‘parked the bus’ against their World Cup play-off conquerors – minus the injured Christian Eriksen – on Saturday night.
From an Irish perspective, there were plenty of dispossessions, graft and aggressive tackling but no discernible attacking plan.
Set pieces and long throw-ins into the Danish penalty area were the sum total of Ireland trying to nick a goal, although a 72nd minute pile-driver from Cyrus Christie forced a rare save out of Kasper Schmeichel.
It’s hard to remember one decent pass up to Shane Long, Ireland’s desperately isolated attacker, as the Tipperary man chased lost causes all night.
Of course, Irish supporters have long given up on the notion of being entertained by their team.
The dour style pre-dates Martin O’Neill’s reign.
And, in fairness to the manager, he was without Seamus Coleman, Robbie Brady, James McCarthy, Jonathan Walters and Stephen Ward for the Denmark clash.
Given their thinning resources and low confidence, a scoreless draw was a victory of sorts for O’Neill on Saturday night, with hopes rising ever so slightly that there will be more ambition about the side in tomorrow night’s home tie with Wales.
“We definitely need more possession of the ball,” O’Neill told reporters.
“When we did have possession and kept it for a little while we looked fine, we looked as though we were comfortable with it. We want to extend that play and that’s what we’re looking to try and do.
“[Scoring goals] is extremely difficult. We haven’t possessed a natural scorer since Robbie Keane retired and they’re worth their weight in gold.
“But I’m pleased with the attitude of the team.”
Unlike last November, the Irish limited their visitors to a couple of shots from distance with Pione Sisto coming closest with a curling drive that came off the post just before the break.
“We conceded four goals against Wales and I think that was important for us - a clean sheet is a start," O'Neill added.
“Despite the possession Denmark had I didn’t think they caused us many problems.
“I think we could still push out a few yards to try and dispossess them further away from our goal. That’s what we’re going to try and work on for Tuesday, but it’s a start.”
O’Neill also revealed he would probably stick with the experimental 3-5-2 system which revealed its conservative tendencies against the Danes.
While it tightened the Irish from a defensive perspective, none of the three central defenders – Shane Duffy, Richard Keogh or Kevin Long – were confident enough to take the ball out of defence and build from the back.
The trio preferred to go long when they had possession.
Another downside to Ireland’s 3-5-2 was how the left wing-back role curtailed James McClean’s attacking thrusts (although he did move further forward when Enda Stevens was introduced at the restart).
On the other flank, Wolves defender Matt Doherty was making his competitive debut, but he was unable to get forward because of the threat posed by Denmark’s tricky winger Pione Sisto.
And Ireland’s “lack of legs” in the middle of the field, O’Neill mused, might mean that playing three central midfielders will be the way forward for the side.
“The thing about wing-backs, regardless of whether they are attacking wing-backs – and I had them at Celtic and Leicester – those gaps either side of the left-sided or right-sided centre backs, they then become full-backs for a period,” O’Neill explained.
“In terms of James [McClean], he can do that role [of wing-back]. I think there are pluses and minuses to it.
“For us at the minute, and I’m not giving too many secrets away, we probably need three players in the middle of the field. Probably outside of Cyrus [Christie] we don’t have the legs to play a 4-4-2, and we’ve seen this before. So we probably need the three in the middle of the field.”
Another talking point – one of the few from Saturday night’s bore-fest – was when Jeff Hendrick dispossessed Thomas Delaney in the opening exchanges and proceeded to shoot for goal even though the Danes had stopped playing upon seeing Harry Arter down injured.
As it happened, Hendrick shot wide - much to the dismay of the Danish players.
Afterwards, the Dubliner insisted he was “playing to the whistle” and that Delaney should have kicked the ball out of play rather than simply stopping.
O’Neill acknowledged that had Hendrick converted the chance, his side would have been obliged to allow the Danes to equalise unopposed, in the interests of fair play.
With Gareth Bale rated as only “50-50” to face the Irish in Dublin tomorrow night, O’Neill reminded reporters of the absence of Seamus Coleman.
“I know you keep forgetting about these things [but] Seamus Coleman is as important to us as a captain, as a player, a world class player.
“He could play in any full-back position in Europe, I’m sure you’d all agree with that, so he’s as important to us as Gareth Bale is to Wales.”
Meanwhile, Callum O’Dowda is a doubt for tomorrow night’s encounter after he took a blow to the head in the first half against Denmark, while Callum Robinson could get a rare start after impressing from the bench as O’Neill mulls over the fitness of James McClean and Shane Long, both of whom haven’t played a lot of football in recent weeks due to injury.
On McClean, O’Neill said: “You know what he’s like: heart and soul. If James was tired you can imagine what it was like. He’s only had about 65 minutes since his injury [broken wrist]. He did fine for us.
“I’ll see how he is. James recovers well. I would say he and Cyrus Christie are the fittest lads we have and James will want to play [against Wales].”
Republic of Ireland ratings
Darren Randolph: A much quieter night than 11 months ago. Dealt with a couple of second half efforts after suffering a heavy knock in a 50-50 with Thomas Delaney in the early stages. Was well beaten as Pione Sisto’s curling drive came off the post. 6
Matt Doherty: Making his competitive debut, the Wolves defender couldn’t really get forward for two reasons: Sisto was a handful on his flank and Ireland don’t build from the back. 5
Richard Keogh: Captaining the side for the night, the Derby County defender didn’t allow anything to get past him. However, many of his clearances were panicky and aimless. 6
Kevin Long: Winning only his ninth cap, the Burnley man was the left-sided member of a three-pronged central defensive unit. Not too clever with the ball at his feet but defended stoutly at times against Yussuf Poulsen. 6
Shane Duffy: His late theatrical dive in the Danish penalty box earned him a yellow card rather than a penalty. The big Derryman probably had the home side’s best chance on the night and he might have done better with his glancing header in 39th minute that breezed wide. 6
Cyrus Christie: Deployed in an unfamiliar midfield role and appeared sluggish in the first half and also allowed Pione Sisto to get a shot off that hit Ireland’s upright. Found a second wind in the second half and had a decent effort from distance. 6
Harry Arter: Received generous applause upon his withdrawal which suggests the fans had some sympathy for him after his much debated row with Roy Keane. Shrugged off an early knock, made some good interceptions but was lucky to avoid a red-card after a dangerous lunge on Martin Braithwaite. 5
Callum O’Dowda: Designed to be the creative hub but it didn’t materialise. Lost possession a couple of times but appeared to suffer a blow to the head and was replaced at the break. 4
Jeff Hendrick: Controversially played on when the Danish team had stopped due to an injury to Harry Arter and although he missed the target, he was surrounded by the opposition for trying to score. Patchy display although playing in an attacking role is not easy to pull off in this Irish team. 4
STAR MAN: James McClean: Played in a number of positions and never lacked for effort. Started at left wing-back and moved into midfield for the start of the second half. Always tried to commit the opposition but no cigar on the night. 6
Shane Long: Restored to the lone striker’s role and was reduced to chasing lost causes all night. Tried to win a few frees but the referee wasn’t buying it. Set up Cyrus Christie for a second half chance before being replaced with six minutes left. 5
Enda Stevens: Winning his fourth cap, the Sheffield United defender was handed the second 45 minutes to impress. Did well both defensively and offensively. 6
Callum Robinson: Enlivened the Irish attack and probably felt he deserved more game-time after his previous performances. 6
Aidan O’Brien: A couple of nice touches but only had a few minutes to make an impact. 4