Republic of Ireland stand on the cusp against slick Denmark
European 2020 Qualifying Group D: Republic of Ireland v Denmark (Tonight, Dublin, 7.45pm)
MICK McCarthy’s second managerial stint with the Republic of Ireland couldn’t have had a more unromantic beginning.
Gibraltar, the back end of March, a plastic pitch, a chaotic wind sweeping down from The Rock right beside the tiny airport, and a side-footed finish from Jeff Hendrick just after half-time got the Irish up and running.
Then we had the optimism of Georgia a few days later in Dublin, and the feel-good factor of Shane Duffy’s late equaliser in Copenhagen.
We had the defiance against the Swiss and the unforgettable roar that could be heard in the main street of Balbriggan when David McGoldrick nodded home James McClean's looping cross.
But a qualification campaign involving the Irish wouldn't be complete without some hard times.
Right on cue, the Irish struggled, as they always do, in Tbilisi and a genuinely miserable night in rainy Geneva followed.
After seven games that has yielded just six goals for and four against, it comes down to this: a winner-takes-all shoot-out with the slick Danes on a freezing Monday night under the bright lights of the Aviva Stadium.
Despite last month's bout of turbulence, Mick McCarthy’s eight-month ‘Greenhouse’ experiment has guided the Republic to within touching distance of a place at next summer's Euro 2020 finals.
A win over Denmark will be enough for the Irish to make it three Euro finals appearances in a row.
The Danes will qualify if they avoid defeat.
It's been a roller-coaster but not necessarily one that has caught the public’s imagination.
Backed by a full house in the Aviva Stadium this evening, the Republic of Ireland players hope to clinch the deal rather than rely on the Nations League play-offs in March to sneak through to the finals, which will be played across 12 cities next June, including Dublin.
The cushion of a play-off berth might partially explain McCarthy’s easy demeanour in Abbotstown yesterday morning before the squad trained, but many years of experience helps too.
Asked does he enjoy these days more than he did earlier in his managerial career, the former captain said: “The butterflies are going around. I won’t be walking around worrying about it, that’s for sure.
“But there will be lots of thoughts going around my head thinking about the game and thinking about players and thinking about certain scenarios and situations.
“If we play well enough and get at them, we can win it. But I think I’m better able to handle it now. I’d like to think so after 970-odd games or whatever it is.”
There was also a refreshing break with tradition yesterday morning.
Successive managers have waxed lyrical about the Irish players’ never-say-die attitude, but for the first time in a long time a Republic of Ireland manager hailed the technical ability of the squad that will be captained tonight by Derry native Shane Duffy.
“Individually, some players have surprised me,” McCarthy said.
“It’s the best squad I’ve worked with other than 2002. I watch them in training. Technically, they’re good players, spirit, work-rate, determination not to get beaten, there’s all of that. That hasn’t surprised me.”
McCarthy will make wholesale changes to the side that eased to a 3-1 friendly win over New Zealand on Thursday night and, apart from Seamus Coleman serving a suspension, the manager has no injury concerns.
Goalkeeper Darren Randolph, arguably the team’s most consistent performer in qualification, has had no ill-effects from a thigh strain he'd been battling with last month.
Matt Doherty will replace Coleman at right back and the talismanic David McGoldrick returns to lead the attack after the Sheffield United striker missed last month’s scoreless draw in Georgia and 2-0 defeat in Switzerland.
With McCarthy virtually ruling out Robbie Brady playing any part against the Danes tonight due to a lack of game-time, the only position that can’t be nailed down with any great certainty is the right-sided midfield role.
Seani Maguire and Callum Robinson both scored their first goals for the senior team last Thursday night and it may well be a toss of a coin between the pair to see who occupies the right side.
Striker Troy Parrott, Ireland’s teenage sensation, did enough against New Zealand to remain in the senior squad and could be thrust from the bench tonight if the home side end up chasing the game.
"If the circumstances are right and all the stars are aligned, he might get a chance to come on,” McCarthy said of the 17-year-old Spurs man.
"He might be on the bench and not play and that would be sad for him. [But] It's an option and when you see his movement, it could be one of those things on a night as it is when it's made for heroes, he might be the first one."
The Republic had some trouble curtailing the Danish midfield [Thomas Delaney, Lasse Schone and Christian Eriksen] in Copenhagen back in June, but McCarthy doesn’t believe they possess the same running power as their Swiss counterparts.
"[Denis] Zakaria and [Breel] Embolo were hugely impressive... Schone and Delaney were more 'sitters' over there and, of course, [Granit] Xhaka does the sitting for the Swiss.
“But I think they play differently. Those two [Delaney and Schone] sit and try to dictate the play with the two centre halves and they let Eriksen roam. The Swiss two ran more from midfield and are more athletic."
Apart from Duffy's threat from set pieces and Conor Hourihane's free-kicks, it's difficult to see how the Irish can unlock the Danish defence.
It's hard to escape the conclusion that the Irish may just have to rely on the play-offs next March to make it through to the finals.
Republic of Ireland (probable): Randolph, Doherty, Stevens, Duffy, Egan, Whelan, Hourihane, Hendrick, Robinson, McGoldrick, McClean