A World Cup qualifying campaign is a lot like a boxing match. It can go ten rounds and in some cases twelve. You have to pace yourself perfectly and if you’re not careful a commanding lead can be wiped out instantaneously.
In Ireland’s case, we felt our opponents out in the first round, went on to dominate rounds two to four, were pinned to the ropes between the fifth and the eight and survived the standing eight count to steady ourselves in the ninth before delivering the knockout blow in the tenth.
While we are still vying for a place on the main card in Russia next year, it’s a better place to be than some of our rivals in the division, still searching for their teeth in the crowd and making sure their TV subscription is up to date so they can tune to the showpiece next year.
Standing in our way is the mighty Danes, who, while they might be better known for Carlsberg and Hamlet, have put together a nifty enough team, led by the new Prince of Denmark (and Tottenham) Christian Eriksen.
While there is no doubting they are a decent side, it is the kindest of the four possible opponents we could have faced and a team we will no doubt fancy our chances against.
So how do we beat them?
There are four main steps that must be followed in order to win out against this Danish side in order to progress to our first World Cup in 16 years.
4. Eclipse Eriksen
Simply put, Eriksen is the heartbeat of this team. Over the course of the qualifying campaign he scored eight goals (that’s twice as much as our top scorer, James McClean) and provided three assists, helping Denmark to finish second in their group. However, a closer look at his statistics for Tottenham last season showcase how much of handful he can be.
He provided 23 assists last season; the highest out of anyone in Europe’s top five competitions. He also has the fourth highest amount of touches in the league, averaging 75 possessions per game and covered the most ground per game in English football’s top tier with a mean distance of 11.97km ran.
So, that’s the problem. What about the solution?
Eriksen needs to be man-marked and completely taken out of the game in order to curtail his influence. Shackling your opponent’s playmaker is something that has been proven to work well in the past, with Ander Herrera’s complete nullification of Eden Hazard a recent example of how successful this tactic can be if implemented properly.
So, who is the right man for the job?
This is the role David Meyler was born to play, however the dynamic Corkonian is suspended and will miss the first leg in Copenhagen. Harry Arter is the next candidate for the role. He is an important cog in the Martin O’Neill’s midfield and while he doesn’t always start for a Bournemouth side still languishing near the bottom of the Premier League, if he can replicate the intensity of his performance in Cardiff he represents our best chance of stifling Eriksen in Copenhagen.
2. Dynamic Duo
One of the high points of this qualifying campaign has been the emergence of our centre-back partnership of Shane Duffy and Ciaran Clarke. No disrespect to their predecessors, John O’Shea and Richard Keogh who served Ireland proudly and with distinction for years, but having a pairing of young, dynamic centre-backs who play regularly in the Premier League is a huge asset to the team and they will be key to helping us overcome the Danes.
If they (especially Duffy) can repeat the performances they put in against Wales, and if they continue to be an attacking threat from set-pieces, then it will go a long way towards helping us qualify.
3. Shake The Shackles Off Shane Long
While there is no doubting the honesty and effort displayed in an Irish shirt by Shane Long every time he laces his boots, and we acknowledge that he has provided vital goals in the past, there is equally no denying he is currently going through a drought, not scoring in 28 games.
He cut a frustrated figure against Moldova in Dublin when a couple of gilt-edged opportunities fell his way but he couldn’t finish them off. Injury to the free-scoring Sean Maguire is a massive blow as it puts the impetus on Long and his partner Daryl Murphy to provide the goals.
McClean won’t always be able to continue to pop up with goals so now would be a good time for the Tipperary native to break his duck and end his long goal-less spell. He plays best when he is given space so he needs to work in tandem with his midfielders and striking partner – more than likely Murphy – to manufacture gaps in between the Danish midfield and defence, which he can run into to catch them on the break.
4. Fantastic Four
With the absence of James McCarthy, the best midfield Ireland can put together is probably Robbie Brady, Arter, Jeff Hendrick and McClean with Wes Holohan coming in off the bench or possibly starting at home, with McClean being given more of a free role (which has paid dividends).
While Duffy got most of the plaudits for the Wales game, the midfield combination worked perfectly with Hendrick and Arter both playing their part in McClean’s goal. If they could replicate that kind of composed performance it could help to quell the Danish midfield threat and provide the platform for another famous win.
Check out the latest episode of The Mixer, Pundit Arena’s Irish football podcast, as we look ahead to the crunch tie between Ireland and Denmark.