Football/Soccer

Ireland are familiar with play-off terrain but Christian Eriksen is potential game-winner

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill has guided the side to the cusp of the World Cup finals
From Brendan Crossan in Copenhagen

Play-off, first leg: Denmark v Republic of Ireland (Saturday, 7.45pm, live on Sky Sports Main Event & RTE2)

WE should have known it would come down to this. It always does. The play-offs.

A road well-worn by the Irish.

November terrain. The fading light. The tension and the biting cold in some European outpost.

This is how the Republic of Ireland goes about reaching major tournaments.

It’s the last perilous cliff face to the highest peak.

From a psychological perspective, the Republic have a distinct advantage over play-off opponents Denmark because they don’t mind hanging off cliff faces.

They succeeded against Estonia via the play-offs to reach Euro 2012.

They dismissed Bosnia-Herzegovina two years ago to make Euro 2016, while Wales in Cardiff was another treacherous mountain scaled last month.

But, of course, fortune favours the brave.

Courtesy of Scotland failing to beat Slovenia smoothed the Republic’s path in Cardiff.

Gareth Bale was missing and Welsh wizard Joe Allen was forced out of the make-or-break Group D tie before half-time.

The Republic players defended like lions on the night and one moment of quality involving Jeff Hendrick, Harry Arter and James McClean was enough to win the game.

It’s the kind of template that doesn’t offer a lot of wriggle room – but it’s one that Martin O’Neill trusts implicitly.

The Republic of Ireland were rubbing their hands with glee after being paired with the Danes in the play-off draw, understandably so after Croatia’s storming 4-1 win over Greece and Switzerland’s comfortable win over Northern Ireland in their respective first leg ties on Thursday night.

Even so, the Danish assignment is significantly tougher than Bosnia who played like they didn’t fancy the job two Novembers ago.

Playing in front of 38,000 fervent home supporters in the compact Telia Parken Stadium tonight, Denmark will warm to the task more than the Bosnians.

Age Hareide’s side have their defensive defects - but they compensate by playing on the front foot.

They will attack the Republic down the flanks as well as from central areas.

Werder Bremen’s Thomas Delaney, an energetic defensive shield, gives licence to Christian Eriksen, the home side’s star player, to produce moments of quality that often decide tight games.

Generally regarded as a cautious manager, Martin O’Neill is known to gamble when the occasion demands it - evidenced by his daring team selections at last year’s Euro finals in France.

The fact that the away goals rule applies in the play-offs and the Danes are inclined to play a high line lend themselves to the theory that O’Neill will push more than usual to get a goal in Copenhagen.

They’ve also scored in each of their away games during Group D and are unbeaten on their travels.

Despite two excellent displays from Daryl Murphy – against Moldova and Wales – Shane Long is likely to lead the Irish attack, particularly with his pace allied to the home side’s high defensive line.

Eriksen, however, is the big imponderable over these two play-off matches.

A player of moments rather than one who controls a game, the 25-year-old scores all types of goals; he’s strong on both sides and he can thread a pass through the narrowest of corridors.

Feyenoord striker Nicolai Jorgensen – expected to start ahead of Nicklas Bendtner and Andreas Corneluis as the central striker – will be alive to Eriksen’s passes.

Tactically, both Denmark and Ireland are quite predictable.

Denmark’s playmaker is given more freedom at international level than he is at Spurs and probably plays closer to the opponents’ goal for his country, which present a problem for the visitors tonight.

Last night, O’Neill said: “They’ve got some excellent players who can cause a lot of problems - Eriksen has been playing fantastic football now for maybe 16 months, but he's not the only Danish player who can play.

“They have got some really good players – but so have we. We are going to try to play to our strengths – we are going to try to play strongly, we're going to have to be able to defend properly when it comes to it and we are going to have to take our chances.”

“That's what we are going to have to do and over the two legs, we will give ourselves a chance, we hope.”

On November nights like Copenhagen, spirit does matter.

Bravery matters. The Republic won't be lacking in this regard.

The statistics show Ireland don’t score a lot of goals – 12 in 10 qualification games – but, as Cardiff proved, all it takes is one chance and the stats no longer matter.

They will get chances against this Danish defence.

One goal could be enough to force Denmark to walk the plank in Dublin on Tuesday night.

But Christian Eriksen is top quality - better than many observers believe - who will have his moments to inflict serious damage on Ireland's World Cup prospects.

Denmark are likely to shade the first leg tonight - but this tie will be decided in Dublin.

That's when the real fun begins.

Republic of Ireland (probable): Randolph, Christie, Ward, Clark, Duffy, Whelan, Arter, Hendrick, Brady, Long, McClean

Denmark (probable): Schmeichel, Ankersen, Larsen, Bejelland, Kaej, Delaney, Kvist, Erisken, Sisto, Jorgensen, Poulsen

Ends//

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Football/Soccer