Northern Ireland get it right at last to see off table-toppers Denmark
Euro 2024 qualifying group H: Northern Ireland 2-0 Denmark
The luxury of choice seemed set to deny Northern Ireland again – but the Price proved right and then Charles crowned a famous victory over table-toppers Denmark.
Second half goals from midfielder Isaac Price and forward Dion Charles conjured up an impressive home victory against visitors who had only lost once previously in this group, away to Kazakhstan,
As important as the two goals were, though, so was the determined, disciplined defending, notably from stand-in – and perhaps future – skipper Paddy McNair and Eoin Toal, who produced a good impression of Jonny Evans in the number five jersey.
Overall there wasn’t a below-par display from any of the men in green, who finally delivered an uplifting performance and got their rewards after a series of narrow losses and then Friday night’s humbling in Finland.
Sure, Denmark were under-strength, with Manchester United men Christian Eriksen and Rasmus Hojlund ruled out by injury and other regulars rested – but NI have been plagued by injuries throughout this campaign and this was another much weakened home selection too.
Manager Michael O’Neill had to alter his line-up anyway with centre back Daniel Ballard ruled out by a hamstring injury, bringing in Ciaron Brown at the back. He also recalled Shea Charles to midfield after suspension and included Dale Taylor in attack, with Jordan Thompson and young Ross McCausland the players to miss out.
Denmark boss Kasper Hjulmand made seven changes to the side that started their decisive victory over Slovenia on Friday night. Only goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel and three defenders were retained – Joachim Andersen, Andreas Christensen, and Victor Kristiansen.
Yet those he brought in included Celtic midfielder Matt O’Riley, Anderlecht duo Thomas Delaney and Kasper Dolberg, and Napoli wide man Jesper Lindstrom.
Still, the hosts began brightly, with their two forwards combining on the right, and although the Danes soon settled into some neat, patient possession they didn’t really threaten.
Indeed it was the home side who should have broken the deadlock in the eighth minute, albeit from a combination of luck and route one. Goalkeeper Conor Hazard launched a free kick from his own six-yard box, striking it well into the wind, and it skimmed off the head of Danish defender Rasmus Kristensen to Dion Charles.
The Bolton Wanderer raced clear on the left and drilled a low cross-shot which beat Schmeichel but came back off the base of the far post and fell to a Dane, who cleared the danger.
The visitors continued to have plenty of possession, and posed some problems with corner kicks swirling in on the breeze, but it wasn’t until the 24th minute that had a serious shot, and the long-range effort from defensive midfielder Morten Hjulmand flew over.
Denmark came closer, but still off target, 10 minutes later. Young forward Mohamed Daramy released Kristiansen on the left and he delivered a precise centre, but Kasper Dolberg could only stab it wide of the near post.
The pressure was clearly building and Hazard finally had a serious save to make when Andersen flicked on a wickedly whipped corner, the keeper reacting superbly to parry the ball away.
The Saul man then was forced into an unorthodox stop, a drive from Christensen deflected but kept out as a falling Hazard swept the ball away with his left leg,
To no great disgruntlement, the referee found no added time, and the sides went in goalless at the break.
It was NI who threatened first, Jamal Lewis swinging over a great cross which Toal headed narrowly wide, but the hosts did get in front on the hour.
The goal was lovely, from start to finish. Left-back Lewis showed great feet to dance away from several Danes before finding Dion Charles. He shifted the ball right to his namesake Shea, who showed typical composure by delaying, before rolling it into the path of Price. The 20-year-old struck his shot low, hard, and through Schmeichel for a surprise, but superb lead.
Denmark responded with a triple substitution, putting on Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, Delaney, and Jannik Vestergaard, for O’Riley, Mathias Jensen, and Daramy, and the fresh legs gave them some impetus as they searched for an equaliser.
Kristiansen found himself in space when a ball came right across the box, but when he teed up Hojbjerg the experienced Tottenham midfielder could only cut his shot wide.
The increasingly frustrated Danes sent on Jonas Wind, who’d scored the only goal when the sides met in Copenhagen in June, but they could not blow down the defensive wall.
Instead the men in green doubled their lead, with a great goal on the counter. Conor McMenamin found space on the left and sent over a terrific low ball which left Dion Charles the easy job of finishing beyond a stranded Schmeichel.
All the woes of this campaign seemed forgotten by the home support, who roared their way through a repertoire of chants, particularly paying tribute to that man McNair.
Even the announcement of six minutes of added time wasn’t greeted with many boos, although home hearts were in mouths when a Dolberg shot following a penalty box scramble had to be tipped over.
There was another hairy moment just before the end but, remarkably for this campaign, this time one opposition goal wasn’t going to make much difference.
A victory in vain in the bigger picture, but at last and at least there was some hope for Northern Ireland, the promise that their young players can put in more performances like this in the future.
Northern Ireland (5-3-2): Hazard; Hume, Toal, McNair (capt.), Brown, Lewis; S Charles, Saville (Thompson, 82), Price (Smyth, 78); Taylor (McMenamin, 78), D Charles (Washington, 86).
Denmark (4-1-3-2): K Schmeichel; Kristensen, Christensen, Andersen, Kristiansen; Hjulmand (Wind,73); Lindstrom (Poulsen, 56), O’Riley (Hojbjerg), Jensen (Delaney, 61); Dolberg, Daramy (Vestergaard, 61).
Referee: Jerome Brisard (France).