Friday sees Ireland renew their recent rivalry with Denmark with a new manager in Mick McCarthy at the helm and memories of some of the most dour nights in Irish football still etched in the memories of supporters of the Boys in Green.
In isolation, a smattering of 0-0 draws against an undoubtedly superior Danish side is nothing to be sneered at and the 0-0 draw in the first leg of the World Cup play-offs certainly wasn’t back in November 2017.
As the sides prepare to meet for the fifth time in just a year and a half, most Irish fans would surely bite your hand off for another scoreless draw on Friday night and an invaluable point on the road against one of their Group D rivals.
Mick McCarthy has promised to play on the front foot against the Danes and there is no cause to doubt him. The Irish performance against Georgia in March was the most encouraging display in years. Yes, it was Georgia and Ireland should be beating them at home, but it has been so long since Irish fans were treated to some creativity, that the 1-0 win against the fourth seeds in the group felt a good deal more significant.
That is not to say that Ireland will dominate possession on Friday and that Denmark will be on the ropes, clinging on for dear life. Far from it. It just means that Ireland will look to be inventive when they do get the ball and flood numbers forward when they have the opportunity to do so.
Ireland will still be defensive, but it would be naïve to think that they wouldn’t be in an away game against a team that are better than them. It is possible to strike a balance between being rigidly tight at the back and still being able to pose a threat going forward.
Therefore, they will have to pick their moments and use the ball wisely when they have it.
Martin O’Neill dismissed this philosophy altogether, treating the ball as an enemy that needed to be hacked clear at the earliest possible convenience and negating a need for a midfield by consistently by-passing them.
For O’Neill, the ends justified the means, and it made him temporarily popular among the Irish faithful when he guided Ireland to Euro 2016, but as soon the ends deserted him, so did the supporters. McCarthy will want to avoid tarnishing a reputation he had built up over six years as Ireland manager at the turn of the century, where he arguably played better football than any Irish manager in history. He doesn’t have the same players at his disposal, but that doesn’t mean he can’t still play football the right way.
Michael O’Neill has proved that the whole can be greater than the sum of the parts with Northern Ireland and McCarthy can follow suit with Ireland. Friday will be first true indication as to whether things have changed since the dark ages Ireland had regressed to under O’Neill, but it should represent a marked improvement from the last away game in Denmark.
Just don’t be too surprised if this game finishes as a low-scoring draw or if history repeats itself in a 0-0 stalemate.
Danish disasters: Aviva, November, 2017
We’ve tried to erase the 5-1 drubbing that left Ireland’s 2018 World Cup hopes in tatters, but it’s seared too deeply into our memories to ignore every time this fixture crops up. That defeat at the Aviva was a reckless abandonment of any semblance of tactics and ultimately cost the home side – who it now seems staggering to recall took the lead after six minutes through Shane Duffy – a place at the top table in Russia.
But the three 0-0 draws equally showcased O’Neill’s tactical limitations as a manager, where Ireland had just two shots on target and never had more than 34 per cent possession.
Aarhus, November, 2018
The most recent draw was probably the worst of them all. Ireland had no shots on target against the Danes in a dead rubber in Aarhus last November which proved to be the final straw for O’Neill and Keane. Denmark had already topped the group, while Ireland had already been relegated to the third tier of the Nations League and still O’Neill showed a propensity for ultra-defensive football.
With Michael Obafemi making his international debut, this was a chance to have a go and bow out with a bit of pride, but O’Neill was never going to compromise. The Danes, with no incentive to go for the win, had 26 shots and 76 per cent of the ball as Ireland fielded seven outfield players who operate as defenders and camped on the edge of their own area for 90 minutes. Ireland were relegated with two points and one goal scored from four games instead of one point and one goal scored. What a waste of everyone’s time.
Aviva, October, 2018
Cyrus Christie’s marauding run and optimistic lob was Ireland’s only attempt on target in that play-off away leg that we thought would set us up for victory at home, before reality dawned with a 5-1 hammering at home.
With no lesson learned, the same player was the only Irishman to muster a shot on goal 12 months later when, deployed controversially as a midfielder this time, his 30-yard strike was easily beaten away by Kasper Schmeichel.
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