Eddie Ryan looks at five reasons Ireland should be worried ahead of next month’s World Cup play-off versus Denmark.
5. The Anchorman
David Meyler’s elevation from bit-part player to team captain has been one of the stories of the Irish campaign. The Hull City man had hinted at his potential when introduced in Vienna last where he played a crucial part in James McClean’s match-winning goal.
Recalled for the home match against Moldova, Meyler was a surprise choice for the captain’s armband. Calm and composed in possession, he has been a revelation and he was instrumental in Ireland’s heroic away win in Cardiff.
The late yellow card he picked up for a wild lunge on Welsh goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey was reckless and means he will miss the first leg in Copenhagen. Meyler has anchored the Irish midfield superbly since his recall and his combative all-action style will be sorely missed.
4. The Conductor
When Wes Hoolahan was handed a starting berth against Moldova three days before the crucial match against Wales, it seemed the clearest indication yet the the diminutive Norwich player was uppermost in Martin O’Neill’s selection thoughts for the trip to Cardiff.
As the minutes ticked by in the Aviva stadium it became apparent that Ireland’s most creative force would be missing from the starting lineup in the Cardiff City Stadium. Hoolahan’s limited game time is a huge source of frustration for the player and Irish fans.
O’Neill has opted for substance over style for the Boys in Green, preferring his team to defend deep and counter-attack at pace. Hoolahan’s silky skills are clearly surplus to requirements when Ireland are ready to go to war.
The bigger question remains: how much longer can Ireland persist with their high risk defensive strategy?
Conceding territory and possession against better opposition will be tantamount to suicide.
Ireland will have to be positive and throw off the shackles at some stage in the tie. The worry is by the time the Dubliner enters the fray it may be too late.
3. No Case For The Attack
Ireland managed to find the net on twelve occasions in ten Group D encounters. When you consider seven of those goals were scored against group minnows Moldova and Georgia respectively, that is a serious cause for concern.
Shane Long’s continuing travails in front of goal have merely highlighted how big a loss record goalscorer Robbie Keane is to the Boys in Green. The Tipperary native was widely tipped to provide the bulk of the goals in the absence of the talismanic Tallaght man, but this has failed to happen.
Long’s last competitive goal for Ireland was against Moldova in Chișinău and he has yet to break the 20-goal mark as he closes in on 80 Republic of Ireland appearances.
The striker’s work rate and commitment to the cause are admirable traits, but he has never been prolific for club or country so his ongoing struggles are hardly a surprise.
In the last Euros campaign Jonathan Walters proved the saviour but he has found it tougher going this time round. In fairness to the Burnley hit man he has been hampered by a long-running injury and his goal against Austria at home may yet prove to be the most important from a long campaign.
James McClean has taken up the mantle from Walters but how long can the West Bromwich Albion winger keep popping up with important goals?
Daryl Murphy is honest and a threat in the air but his lack of mobility at this level has hampered his goal return.
The clamour for the in-form Sean Maguire grows louder with each passing day, but a recent injury and a lack of big game experience will seriously mitigate against his chances of starting either of the two legs.
2. Danish Men Of War
The Danes, like most Nordic teams, are physically strong and technically proficient. Unlike a lot of sides Ireland face, they will be more than comfortable in a war of attrition.
Simon Kjaer (Sevilla) has anchored the defence superbly, and the stingy rearguard has conceded only eight goals in ten qualifying matches. While the Danes are not the most prolific up front, Thomas Delaney of Werder Bremen has had an excellent campaign in the engine room, alongside the Tottenham Hotspur dynamo Christian Eriksen.
If Ireland do find a way to unlock a well-organised defence, a familiar face will be waiting to shut the door. Leicester City’s Kasper Schmeichel may not be the towering presence of his father Peter of Manchester United fame, but he is an excellent and acrobatic shot stopper.
In what is likely to be a tense and feisty affair there is no guarantee that the Danes will blink first.
1. Lucky General
By any standards Martin O’Neill has been a lucky general in his tenure as Irish manager. A stuttering Euros campaign was on life support by the time Scotland travelled to Tbilisi to face Georgia.
Valeri Qazaishvili is not a name that will resonate with Ireland’s army of supporters. The attacking midfielder now features with The San Jose Earthquakes, yet he deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Gary Mackay. It was his 37th-minute strike that stunned Gordan Strachan’s Scotland and handed O’Neill’s Ireland a lifeline.
It was the unfortunate Strachan’s Scots who again came to Ireland’s aid as they beat Slovakia courtesy of a late deflected Chris Martin strike. Things got even better for O’Neill and Ireland as Scotland could only draw 2-2 in Ljubljana against Slovenia, a result that put Ireland back in the hunt for a play-off slot.
O’Neill has proved to be a very lucky general and yes this is a huge positive for the green army, but how long can that last?
Eddie Ryan, Pundit Arena