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Ireland and Denmark finished 0-0 in their World Cup play-off first leg clash at Telia Parken.
The Danes dominated in possession, shots and the passing game, but failed to finish one of 12 chances on goal as Martin O’Neill’s side held firm in a resolute defensive display.
The best chance of the tie fell to Denmark’s Pione Sisto in the first half, when he stroked wide with virtually an open goal ahead of him, while Darren Randolph made a superb double save in goals for Ireland minutes earlier. Cyrus Christie had Ireland’s best chance when he forced Kasper Schmeichel into a fine chested save just before the interval.
Shane Duffy also forced Schmeichel into a stop with a headed effort late on, while Randolph tipped over from Yussuf Poulsen in a frantic finish where the Danes peppered the Irish goal.
Overall, O’Neill and his charges will feel they are an equal match for the Danes - who were billed as favourites going into the tie - and know another tight game is likely in the return leg on Tuesday at Aviva Stadium.
O’Neill set his side up in a 4-5-1 formation in Copenhagen, with Daryl Murphy the lone target man, and a five-man blanket laid over the back-four, the Derry man’s tactic to frustrate the Danes in the final third rather than starve them of possession, who themselves started out 4-3-3, with influential Tottenham star Christian Eriksen playing centre-mid.
It took ten minutes for the much-fancied Danes to create a gilt-edged chance for the opener. A long ball picked out left back Jens Larsen on the left-edge of the area, where he took it down with his thigh before rifling an effort on goal, where keeper Randolph did superbly to parry away, but only as far as Andreas Cornelius, who snatched at his effort from six yards, sending it safely towards the chest of Randolph to make a double save.
As expected the Danish possession game took effect in the early stages as they looked to pass their way past the Irish defensive setup, but 22 minutes in the visiting Celts showed very little in terms of chinks in their armour, as Eriksen resorted to a speculative, long-range effort with Ireland’s bank of ten behind the ball proving as effective as it had in Cardiff in the 1-0 win over Wales that qualified Ireland for the play-offs.
But 32 minutes in by rights Ireland should have fallen behind. Ciaran Clark sloppily gave possession away in front of his own nets, with a tame clearance that fell to Eriksen to collect, stride at goal and then unleash a shot at Randolph, with the Middlesbrough keeper again parrying, before it took a slight deflection of a group of two Irishmen and a Dane in the box and fell to Sisto. The bottom-right corner was calling out for the striker to finish into, but taking it first time the Celta Vigo man incredibly stroked his effort the wrong side of the upright. It was a huge let-off for Ireland.
Having hardly made a foray into enemy territory, three minutes before the break Ireland almost stole the lead. Right back Christie galloped up the right flank, chasing a ball pushed over his head by Callum O’Dowda and beating Larsen to burst into the area, where he came up one on one with Kasper Schmeichel in nets. Christie went to dink the ball over the keeper’s shoulder, with Schmeichel anticipating and spreading himself to block the effort away. Jeff Hendrick collected the rebound but saw his effort on goal deflected away for a corner-kick – that came to nothing – as Ireland gave their 3,500-strong travelling support a surge of optimism heading into the break after a 45 minutes of little quality and an abundance of nerves.
The first quarter of an hour after the break saw little in terms of quality or chances for either side, with both midfield units nullifying go-forward ball in both directions. However, Christie and Robbie Brady both sprayed crosses into the box as Ireland had their best attacking period, but there was a lack of Irishmen in the box to capitalise on either delivery.
Christie’s prominence in the tie continued as he bravely put his head in the way to block a fierce shot on goal from Peter Ankersen on the edge of the area, with the right back going down for attention, giving both sides a chance to regroup as Denmark brought Poulsen into the tie for Cornelius in a like-for-like swap up front.
After the hour a huge chance fell for Clark. Harry Arter won a free-kick inside the Danish half for an arm thrown in his face by Poulson in an aerial duel, with Brady curling the delivery into the Danish area. The defence was overly focused on Shane Duffy, leaving Clark unmarked as the ball reached him, however, the centre back was caught unawares himself, and failed to collect, with the ball deflecting off his shin and away.
The game began to open up somewhat as Poulsen then went close at the other end, collecting the ball on the edge of the area, only to stroke his effort on goal the wrong side of the post.
Denmark further changed their forward line as former Arsenal man Nicklas Bendtner was introduced for Pisto, while Ireland brought Shane Long into the tie in place of Murphy at the top of their attack.
Ireland continued to create opportunities in terms of set-pieces, as they won both a corner and a free-kick, with Brady charged with delivering both, but neither being met with an Irish body, as the Danes cleared their lines, as the game entered the final ten minutes of normal time.
Glenn Whelan entered the fray on 87 minutes for Arter after the former appeared to pick up a slight knock on his leg. A minute later Ireland had a further chance to get that crucial away goal. O’Dowda went down under a challenge 30 yards out, with Brady’s delivery meeting Duffy’s head in the middle of the box, but the centre back only able to direct his effort straight at Schmeichel.
In three minutes of added time the Danes finished the stronger; however, with three chances on goal, the pick of the bunch coming when Larsen found Poulsen for a header in the six-yard area, with Randoplh making a point-blank save to tip the effort over the bar. An effort from Larsen that deflected wide, and a scuffed shot from Bendtner were the other two efforts, as Ireland survived the trio of late scares and the sides go to Dublin for the second leg with nothing between them.
Image: Inpho/James Crombie
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