Matt Holland tells Damian Dolan why the Republic of Ireland’s World Cup play-off with Denmark is too close to call
It’s a “50:50 game” declares former Republic of Ireland international Matt Holland, who knows a thing or two about World Cup play-offs.
The ex-Charlton and Ipswich midfielder was part of the side which ended Ireland’s play-off hoodoo by beating Iran 2-1 over two legs to reach the 2002 World Cup, after heartbreaking defeats to Holland, Belgium and Turkey.
Then there was, of course, France and Thierry Henry’s handball, and wins over Estonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Ireland and its supporters have certainly been here before.
Indeed, for Irish soccer fans, November has become as synonymous with the anguish of the play-offs as the month is with the first morning frost and the onset of winter.
This time, standing between Martin O’Neill’s side and a place at next year’s World Cup in Russia are Denmark. Ireland travel to Copenhagen on Saturday for the 1st leg of their double- header, before hosting Denmark at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium on Tuesday (14 November).
As always, it promises to be a rollercaster ride of emotions, and one which Holland believes is too finely balanced to call.
“It’s going to be fine margins; it’s going to come down to a mistake or a moment of brilliance,” said Holland.
“I’m confident that the players can do it because some of their performances in big matches. When we’ve needed to get a result we’ve been able to, so I’m confident, but I do see it as a 50:50 game.”
Anticipating a “really close affair”, Holland can see comparisons with Ireland’s two qualifying pool matches with Wales, which brought just one goal – James McClean’s strike in Cardiff which sent Ireland into the play-offs, and ended Wales’ dream.
Like Wales, in the shape of Gareth Bale, Denmark have one star player in Christian Eriksen. The Tottenham man scored eight of their 20 goals in qualifying as they finished second to Poland, and has been in irresistible form for his club.
Not only does he carry Denmark’s chief goal threat, but the team is set-up to play through him. If stopping Bale was part of O’Neill’s thinking in Dublin, then how best to nullify Eriksen must be on the Ireland boss’s mind.
“If you give him [Bale] too much time and space he can do some real damage and Martin was very aware of that, and negated the threat of Gareth Bale,” said Holland.
“So if that’s anything to go by he might do something similar and get people around him [Eriksen] and not give him time and space.”
Eriksen is not their only threat, of course. Their two most prolific strikers are Kasper Dolberg, who plies his trade with Ajax, and Feyenoord’s Nicolai Jørgensen. In addition, fellow forward Nicklas Bendtner is well-known to Arsenal supporters, and they have plenty of others with top level experience.
Goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel won the Premier League with Leicester City, while in Andreas Christensen (Chelsea), Simon Kjær (Sevilla), and Jannik Vestergaard (Borussia Mönchengladbach) they have three quality centre backs.
Ranked 19th in the world, six places higher than Ireland, Denmark did inflict a 4-0 hammering on pool winners Poland.
“When you look through their teamsheet they have players who are playing at a high level around the world, so it’s a team to be wary of. “They’re a decent side with decent individuals – it’s a big test for us,” said Holland.
However, Holland is confident that O’Neill’s side can progress. Ireland’s strength during the qualifying campaign was its defence, with a miserly six goals conceded, and having the first leg in Copenhagen should suit, to set up an exciting return meeting in Dublin, when it should be all to play for.
“The goalkeeper and the defence is picking itself at the moment. The defence has been the big plus during the campaign and there’s been some big performances,” said Holland.
“Shane Duffy’s really come of age. Playing regularly in the Premier League with Brighton he’s been outstanding during this campaign. Ciaran Clark’s been playing regularly at Premier League level and those two have done well together.
“Let’s not forget we’ve been missing Seamus Coleman for the last part of the campaign and he’s such an influence on the squad. We’ve missed his thrust from right back, but it’s been more than compensated for by his replacement (Cyrus Christie).
“We’re difficult to play against and difficult to beat. We work hard and get men behind the ball. We don’t always keep the ball as well as you’d like, but we’re certainly resilient.”
Ireland will need two more colossal displays from Duffy and Co against Denmark, but if the defence provides reason for confidence, the lack of goals at the other end – just 12 in qualifying compared to Denmark’s tally of 20 – is a cause for concern.
It’s a situation not helped by the loss of the in-form Jonathan Walters, with Shane Long going through a barren spell at the worst possible time. But Holland is backing the Southampton man to come through it.
“I’m a massive fan of Shane and always have been. He doesn’t score enough goals and that’s been levelled against him numerous times, but his work-rate and what he does for the side shouldn’t go unnoticed,” said Holland.
“Hopefully that draught will come to an end, and there’d be no better time than against Denmark. He’s getting some good clear-cut chances, but he’s snatching at them so there’s clearly a confidence issue in front of goal.
“He just needs one to go in off his shin, and then he’ll get back on a run again.”
Goal shortage aside, Holland believes further grounds for optimism can be found in the 1-0 win in Cardiff, and that Ireland can carry the momentum of that win into the play-offs.
A campaign which looked all but derailed with two games to go was given new life by Daryl Murphy’s double against Moldova and McClean’s winner at the Millennium Stadium. Suddenly there’s a very different atmosphere around the camp.
“That was a massive test and we did well to come through it. There’s momentum building, there’s a good atmosphere about the place, everyone’s saying the right things out of the camp, so we’re in a good, confident place going into the game,” said Holland.
And if Ireland can keep it close in Copenhagen, then there will be no better place to be on Tuesday night than inside Dublin’s Aviva Stadium.
“It’ll be absolutely rocking. It’ll be a great night – one to enjoy and hopefully celebrate. I’m massively looking forward to it,” said Holland.
The stage is set.
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