Ireland frustrate Denmark, Christian Eriksen in playoff first leg 0-0 draw
COPENHAGEN, Denmark -- Three points from Saturday's 0-0 playoff first leg between Denmark and the Republic of Ireland...
1. Ireland frustrate Danes to gain playoff advantage
Some games are never going to find themselves billed as "classics," and Saturday's clash between Denmark and the Republic of Ireland certainly lived down to expectations in Copenhagen. In the end, the dour 0-0 draw gives the Irish the edge in this World Cup play-off going into next Tuesday's return fixture in Dublin.
Having scored in every away game during their group campaign, even edging out Wales with a 1-0 win in Cardiff last month, the Irish shut down the attacking side of their game in the Danish capital and set out on a mission to frustrate the hosts. Aside from a couple of first-half scares that forced goalkeeper Darren Randolph into important saves, Martin O'Neill's team played out a largely comfortable 90 minutes in the Parken Stadium as Denmark tried and failed to break them down.
Randolph was one reason for Denmark's inability to score, with Ireland's centre-half pairing of Ciaran Clark and Shane Duffy also proving crucial: The two defenders blocked every cross that threatened their goal. Denmark, meanwhile, were a shadow of the team that hammered group winners Poland 4-0 in qualifying and lacked imagination, even with Tottenham's Christian Eriksen pulling strings in midfield.
The Irish even ended the game strongest, with a Duffy header forcing a save from Kasper Schmeichel in the 89th minute. Seconds later, Yussuf Poulsen had a header tipped over by Randolph as both teams attempted to make a late breakthrough. But it didn't come, though, leaving Dublin to stage the decider in three days' time.
2. Ireland stifle Eriksen, shut Denmark down
Eriksen was the architect of Tottenham's Champions League destruction of Real Madrid earlier this month, but the Denmark midfielder could not do the same against the Republic of Ireland. And the visitors' success in stifling Eriksen for the majority of this game in Copenhagen is why Martin O'Neill's team remain alive in this playoff for Russia 2018 ahead of Tuesday's return leg in Dublin.
They simply had to stop Eriksen creating havoc and running the game. Although his superior quality saw him pick holes in the Irish defence on sporadic occasions, Denmark's best player was unable to make the breakthrough for Aage Hareide's team.
Going into this game, Eriksen had scored in six successive appearances for his country and taken his tally to eight goals in qualification -- the highest return of any midfielder in the European qualifiers. But aside from a long-range strike in the first half that was pushed away by goalkeeper Darren Randolph, Eriksen was unable to threaten.
On that occasion, the rebound dropped to Pione Sisto on the edge of the six-yard box, but the forward was unable to capitalise, instead shooting wide of goal. Eriksen kept looking for openings, but the Irish defence was so deep and resolute that he could not find a way through.
Whether Ireland can keep him quiet for another 90 minutes at the Aviva Stadium is another matter, but it is something they will have to do if they are to make it to Russia.
3. The World Cup will not be richer with either of these teams
There is still all to play for when these two meet again in Dublin on Tuesday, but the harsh reality for both is that neither will be missed in Russia if they fail to qualify. Even the winners will struggle to make an impression at the World Cup next summer on this evidence.
Eriksen clearly has the talent to light up the big stage but has the misfortune of being surrounded by players who are not in his class. Indeed, the only reason that Denmark find themselves in the play-offs, with one last chance to qualify for Russia, is because of their talismanic midfielder, whose performances helped drag the Danes to runners-up spot in Group E.
Without Eriksen, Denmark would be languishing alongside European football's also-rans. They certainly do not possess the quality of player that they had in the 1980s and 1990s, when the likes of Michael Laudrup, Jan Molby and Peter Schmeichel were key figures.
But while Denmark rely heavily on Eriksen, the Republic of Ireland are a team whose undoubted work ethic makes up for their lack of an outstanding talent. They've always relied on organisation and endeavour over flair, but their previous World Cup teams have at least had top talent such as Roy Keane, Kevin Sheedy and Robbie Keane to turn to.
Ireland's passionate, noisy and friendly army of fans would be missed if the Irish fail to qualify, but their team would not.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_