It will prove to be the two defining games in the Republic of Ireland’s World Cup campaign as they come head-to-head with Denmark in the playoffs for a place in Russia next summer.
The Republic’s route to a second-place finish was anything but an easy one as they had to battle until the last second in their final game.
1-1 draws with Austria and Georgia proceeded a 1-0 loss to group winners Serbia, and left the side teetering on the edge of an early exit. However, a 2-0 win over Moldova set up a showdown of epic proportions with Wales in Cardiff.
It was an understandably nervy affair in the Welsh capital, and James McClean’s goal was enough to separate the two sides as Wales crashed out. Their reward is a playoff against Denmark.
How should the Republic of Ireland set up against Denmark?
Manager Martin O’Neil has utilised a number of different formations over his last few games and he has not seemed to have settled on one he prefers.
Against Austria and Serbia, O’Neil opted for a 4-2-3-1, when they played Moldova they went with a classic 4-4-2, while in their crunch match with Wales O’Neil used a 4-3-3 setup.
Denmark will not know which way the Irish will shape up until just before kick off then, which will suit O’Neil perfectly. Form wise, when using the 4-2-3-1, Ireland drew 1-1 with Austria and lost to Serbia, while with the 4-4-2 they beat Moldova 2-0.
Perhaps it will sway O’Neil then that Denmark tend to line up in a 4-2-3-1 formation. This gives solidity in the middle with two holding-midfielders, whilst also allowing support to the striker via the three more advanced midfielders.
O’Neil may benefit from matching Denmark’s own formation as the classic 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 do not give much cover in the middle despite providing men on the wings. While the 4-2-3-1 seems to encompass a solid shape with cover for the defence and bodies going forward.
While Ireland did beat Wales utilising the 4-3-3 formation, they were absolutely dominated in the game and saw very little of the ball, and took one of the two chances that they created. While this has been the game plan of many teams in the past, Ireland should be advised about playing like that.
How should Ireland play against Denmark?
This is a question almost every side in the playoffs will be asking themselves. Should a manager risk being vulnerable at the back by looking to get forward? Would it benefit a side to sit deep and look to steal a goal? Or should a team look to play their own game and try to forget about the enormity of the situation?
While only O’Neil and his men will know their exact game plan, it is likely that Ireland will look to maintain their outstanding defensive record which will see them sitting deep and looking to hit their opponents on the break.
The first leg will be played in Denmark which means that Ireland will sit deep, happy to soak up the pressure. The benefit of playing the first-leg away is that if the visitors can stay tight and keep themselves within a goal going into the second game, then they can use the vociferous atmosphere that their home crowd will create to spur them on.
How they play in the second leg is completely predicated on their first leg performance. If they are a goal down, then, of course, they will have to attack in the game, but they must not sacrifice their defensive solidity too early. Teams are so often too gung-ho in attack too early, and it costs them in the end.
Martin O’Neil is a master of getting a result out of a game, and he will not let the enormity of the occasion get to him. This means that O’Neil will look to utilise more defensive players in the first leg to make sure they are still in the game before looking to win the second leg.
Indeed, the Republic have lost just once in their 10 games across the qualifying campaign, showing that they are a side that is very tough to beat. However, the question now is, can they maintain the solidity at the back that has served them so well this year?
Which Danish player must Ireland stifle?
Christian Eriksen is the man that makes Denmark tick. From his position just behind the striker, his teammates look to get him on the ball as much as possible, and the Tottenham star is able to use his superb touches, exceptional vision and passing range to take the game to the opposition.
It could fall to the likes of Harry Arter and David Meyler to get as close to the Danish playmaker as possible, otherwise, he will run riot in the middle.
If O’Neil can find a way to stop Eriksen then Denmark will have to rely on their other players to create their chances. This means that they will be forced into playing with a very different game plan to what they predominantly use, which will likely hurt them massively.
While drawing Denmark in the playoff is not the best of ties for Ireland, they will be contented in the knowledge that they managed to skip games against Italy, Switzerland and Sweden.
This is a match that holds a huge prize at the end of it, and if Ireland can defy the odds one more time, then they can look forward to a place in the world football’s showpiece event.