It all comes down to Tuesday.
Ireland produced a 0-0 draw against Denmark in Copenhagen in Saturday’s World Cup play-off first leg, leaving the play-off delicately poised ahead of Tuesday’s return clash at the Aviva.
Here are the main talking points from Parken Stadium.
Darren Randolph was excellent at Parken Stadium.
The 30 year old made a string of important saves to keep out the Danes, and was undoubtedly the man of the match for the boys in green.
He reacted superbly to deny full-back Jens Stryger Larsen’s low volley, before making a brilliant save to stop saving Andreas Cornelius’ rebound.
He denied Eriksen’s swerving low drive after Ciaran Clark’s mishit clearance, but luckily Celta Vigo winger Pione Sisto shot wide with the goal at his mercy.
The former West Ham ‘keeper has pulled off numerous key saves for Ireland during this qualification campaign, and he will likely have to be at his best again in Dublin on Tuesday.
10 players in the Ireland squad were just one yellow card away from suspension, so Martin O’Neill will be pleased that not one player was booked at Parken Stadium last night.
Ireland were typically tenacious and competitive, but avoided reckless tackles or petulant reactions, meaning not one player will be absent through suspension in Tuesday’s decider in Dublin.
David Meyler will also be available after serving his one match suspension tonight, and will more than likely replace Callum O’Dowda in midfield.
Ireland kept things relatively tight at the back, despite having to call on Randolph and Lady Luck at times.
It was an ugly, industrious performance off the ball, but Ireland were woeful in possession throughout. 0-0 is far from a disastrous result, but a lack of composure on the ball continues to frustrate and disappoint.
The more attack-minded Callum O’Dowda got the nod over Glenn Whelan in the absence of David Meyler, but Daryl Murphy was isolated up front, and Irish defenders were often happy to bypass the midfield with hopeful long clearances.
Ireland exhibited very little in terms of creativity over the 90 minutes, and failed to string passes together on an admittedly difficult surface.
“With the ball….Jim Beglin said it was ugly and it wasn’t even that pretty,” Damien Duff claimed afterwards.”It was awful stuff. We must be able to do better than that.”
“We will have to show a bit more creativity during the course of the game at the Aviva,” O’Neill admitted afterwards. “But I think we are capable of doing that.”
“We would obviously want to be better with the ball in Dublin when we are playing in front of our home fans, and in all honesty, we will need to be if we have to score a goal.”
Away goal risk
Both managers talked up the importance of away goals earlier this week, with Denmark boss Age Hareide claiming that a scoreless draw in Copenhagen would be far from a disaster.
Denmark will now come to the Aviva on Tuesday knowing that one goal will likely be enough to secure a place in next summer’s tournament in Russia.
“I think it’s very evenly poised,” O’Neill observed.
“Age [Hareide] said last night in the press conference that he thinks they are capable of scoring at the Aviva. I wouldn’t doubt that.
“We just have to win the game. We have to score goals to win the match.”
Ireland have scored more than one goal in a competitive match on just one occasion (against Moldova) in 2017, and lacked creativity in Copenhagen.
Therefore, another clean sheet is key at the Aviva if Ireland are to progress, but O’Neill’s side will certainly need to improve on the ball in order to do so.
Winning more important than style
Play-offs are about winning by whatever means necessary.
At this stage, with a World Cup position within grasp, results matter far more than performances.
The agricultural performance in Denmark will be soon forgotten if the boys in green can overcome the Danes at the Aviva on Tuesday night, with all thoughts turning to next summer’s tournament in Russia instead.
If Martin O’Neill was told Ireland could secure a World Cup place with a home victory over Denmark 13 months ago when the qualification campaign began, I’m sure he would have taken it.
Ireland shut out the Danes at Parken Stadium, and while our home form in 2017 has been underwhelming, the players will enter the game full of confidence.
We beat Italy when we had to, we beat Wales when we had to, and we can beat Denmark now that we have to.