On Friday night, Mick McCarthy faces undoubtedly the toughest test of his embryonic second spell in charge of Ireland as the Boys in Green take on Denmark in Copenhagen.
A familiar foe for Ireland this will be the fourth time in two years the pair will have squared off in a competitive fixture, with three of the four games ending 0-0 – Irish fans would be keen to forget about the outlier.
As McCarthy prepares his side for the first of a Group D doubleheader, with Gibraltar at the Aviva on Monday still to come, we take a look at five burning questions ahead of Ireland’s crunch clash with Denmark.
1) Will McCarthy Risk Another Crack At The Coleman/Doherty Experiment On The Right?
The Irish manager has indicated that another shot at the Doherty/Coleman right-hand side pairing won’t be happening, but judging by the quality of the pair and the Wolves man’s opinion on the matter, it doesn’t appear to be entirely out of the question.
Coleman returned to form in the latter part of the season for Everton and was one of the standouts during Ireland’s victory over Georgia.
Take into consideration his captaincy and he’s a shoo-in for the right-back spot. Against Gibraltar, McCarthy went with a 4-4-2 with Doherty on the right of the midfield, whereas against Georgia he opted for a 4-3-3 and dropped the 27-year old.
Given Doherty’s outstanding season at Wolves, he’s arguably the type of quality player Ireland should be making room for and McCarthy could try him further forward again, in the right of a front three, especially given how inconsistent the likes of Robbie Brady and James McClean have been at international level.
There’s the question then of how experimental McCarthy is willing to get, given how vital this game could be in the race for qualification.
The Irish boss has been known to be pragmatic and could be inclined to stick with the winning formula from the Georgian game and leave Doherty on the bench.
2) Will The Danes’ Previous Dismissal Of Ireland Come Back To Haunt Them?
Despite failing to lose to Ireland in their previous four games, Denmark have made it very clear that they aren’t the biggest fans of playing against the Boys in Green.
After the first leg of their World Cup playoff, Danish midfielder Thomas Delaney quipped that trying to break down Ireland was like “trying to open a can of beans with your bare hands” while Christian Eriksen bemoaned Ireland’s lack of attacking intent following the last of the trio of 0-0 draws between the two sides.
The Danes see Ireland as a tricky test (Delaney called Ireland the “most annoying team” to play against this week) but the feeling is that Age Hareide’s men don’t see the Boys in Green as their equals.
The 5-1 result aside, which has been proven to be an outlier, Ireland and Denmark have been on equal footing over the past couple of years, regardless of how defensive Ireland played against their Scandinavian counterparts.
Under McCarthy, this Irish side is playing with much more freedom and attacking prowess, if Denmark underestimates and dismiss them, then they run the risk of losing a game they’d otherwise be favourites to win.
Will the comments of their players come back to haunt the Danes? Ireland will certainly be hoping so come Friday.
3) How Do Ireland Stop Christian Eriksen?
It doesn’t take a genius to know that Denmark’s standout player is Christian Eriksen. If Ireland stop him playing his game then they go a long way in stopping the side’s creative influence.
Eriksen has hurt Ireland before, his hattrick at the Aviva a particularly sour memory for the home fans, but he failed to implement his game on his return to Dublin in the Nations League with the tie ending 0-0.
Against Georgia, McCarthy played a defensive midfielder, in Glenn Whelan, whose role partly involved stifling the influence of their number ten, something the former Villa man did admirably, and a task he’ll likely undertake again in Copenhagen.
Whelan has been excellent this season at club level and impressed on his international return but there’s no doubt that the task of looking after a player of Eriksen’s ilk will be a much tougher task for the 35-year old.
McCarthy outlined that he wants his side to press high and cutting off the supply to the Spurs man may be key in limiting his control of the game, along with the potential man-marking job of Whelan.
It’ll also be interesting to see how Eriksen responds to a tumultuous week which saw him suffer defeat in the Champions League final and drop a hint that he may be leaving Spurs in the summer.
4) Can McCarthy Justify Starting Some Of The Old Guard Over The New?
Judging by the lack of injuries in the squad and the way in which McCarthy has been speaking over the last couple of weeks it appears as though his side will lineup in a similar vein to the Georgian win.
If we assume that he will continue with a 4-4-3 formation, it’s difficult to see the need for too many changes in the starting XI. The back five essentially picks itself and Alan Browne’s injury means that it’s probably the triumvirate of Glenn Whelan, Jeff Hendrick and Conor Hourihane in the midfield once again.
Where the changes may and perhaps should lie are in the wide areas. Against Georgia, McCarthy went with the experience of Robbie Brady and James McClean alongside the hugely impressive David McGoldrick but the duo failed to put their mark on the game.
Brady hasn’t looked himself since his return from injury for both club and country and was off the pace at times in the Aviva in March.
McClean had been a talismanic player under Martin O’Neill but he has struggled over the last year or so in green with more promising options presenting themselves over the past 12 months.
Callum Robinson is back fit again and has looked lively whenever he has played for the Boys in Green while Ronan Curtis had a breakout season with Portsmouth, scoring and assisting for fun, a trait McCarthy loves from a wide player.
Then there’s the Matt Doherty dilemma, while Callum O’Dowda is back involved after missing March’s qualifiers.
It now begs the question, whether McCarthy will go for the safe but experienced options like Brady and McClean or the exciting yet inexperienced options of Robinson and Curtis.
5) Is This The First True Acid Test Of The New McCarthy Era?
The Georgian game has been one of the trickier ties over the years for Ireland and the mitigating factors surrounding the Gibraltar game made that more awkward than it ever had any right to be but this game against Denmark is the true test of the level of this Irish side.
Switzerland are unquestionably the strongest side in the group but the battle for second will likely come down to McCarthy’s men and Denmark, meaning Friday’s game could end up being a very important in the context of qualifying.
The fact that Ireland have recent games against Age Hareide’s men to compare their progress with could prove to be another bonus for McCarthy.
Under O’Neill, the Boys in Green failed to get a positive result against the Danes. If McCarthy’s side can nick a goal and leave Copenhagen with a win then it will be a serious indication that things are moving in the right direction.