Martin O’Neill lightens the mood before Republic of Ireland’s tightrope walk

Paul Doyle in Dublin on 13 November 2017

Roy Keane said last week the key to Martin O’Neill’s celebrated motivational acumen boils down to a knack for saying the right thing at the right time. So it was intriguing, on the eve of Tuesday’s second leg of the tautly wound World Cup play-off between the Republic of Ireland and Denmark, to hear O’Neill tease his captain, David Meyler, about missing penalties in training.

There is a real possibility of the match here ending in the same 0-0 scoreline as the first leg on Saturday and, therefore, of a penalty shootout being required. That would determine who advances to the World Cup finals, and who is left to survey the rubble of a 14-month qualification campaign. When asked about that scenario, Meyler declared his confidence he would score from the spot if called.

Not many managers would have chosen that moment to bring their player’s training-ground failures to public attention but O’Neill did so with a deadpan interjection. Everyone in the room laughed, except Meyler, who, after being taken by surprise, looked playfully exasperated. O’Neill had succeeded in introducing levity into what could have been a heavy preview – but in a pointed way. He defused the tension around the occasion while reminding his player talk is cheap. Deeds are sport’s true currency.

For Ireland, this play-off is a balancing act. They must find the right blend between defence and attack, fervour and composure. In Copenhagen they defended with steel but offered little going forward. O’Neill knows that must change, at least a little, if they are to score the one goal or more they will need to progress without a shootout. He knows his players must remain focused enough to deny space to inventive Danes such as Christian Eriksen and Thomas Delaney. They must also pass more incisively than they did on Saturday, when they concentrated so hard on keeping the ball away from their own goal they neglected to figure out how to get it near Denmark’s.

“We will try to be that bit more expansive if we can and deal with the ball a wee bit better,” O’Neill said. Wes Hoolahan often delivers the ideal mixture but usually begins on the bench, where he stayed in the first leg. O’Neill did not say whether the Norwich City schemer would start on Tuesday.

The suspicion is the only changes will see Meyler return to central midfield so Robbie Brady can shift wide and replace Callum O’Dowda, while Shane Long may start up front. The Southampton striker has not scored for club or country since February but Denmark’s defenders may be more bothered by his mobility than by Daryl Murphy’s brawn.

O’Neill hailed his team’s fighting qualities but said: “It should not be everything in our side because eventually, as well as spirit, you have to be able to play.”

Meyler reckoned Ireland’s spirit will give them the edge: “Denmark don’t have the character, heart and desire we have.” The opposing manager, Age Hareide, retorted: “He doesn’t know us.”

O’Neill referred to his team’s record of rising somehow to grand occasions. “We are going to try to win the game and will try to find a way to win it,” he said. “These players have been able to do that in the last couple of years.”

Teams of similar or higher standing to Denmark can vouch for that, including Germany, Italy, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Austria and Wales – all beaten by Ireland in high-stakes showdowns.

In this campaign, Ireland’s best performances came away from home. They scored only four goals in their five group games in Dublin. Hareide highlighted this fact and referred to the possession and pass completion statistics from the first leg, which were heavily in Denmark’s favour. He is not buying O’Neill’s attacking talk. “Ireland will play the same way,” he said. “They just want us to make mistakes. That’s OK. I haven’t got the patience to play like that. We’ll try to attack.”

He is so convinced Denmark will break through this time they have not practised penalties. “We won’t need them,” he said.

Ireland (4-2-3-1, probable): Randolph; Christie, Clark, Duffy, Ward; Arter, Meyler; Brady, Hendrick, McClean; Long.

Denmark (4-3-3, probable): Schmeichel; Ankersen, Kjaear, Bjelland, Larsen; Eriksen, Kvist, Delaney; Poulsen, Cornelius, Sisto.

Referee: Szymon Marciniak (Poland)

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