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Wednesday 19 December 2018

Dour draw in Denmark fails to stop the rot

Lasse Schöne of Denmark in action against Ireland's Robbie Brady during last night's Nations League B match at Ceres Park in Aarhus
Lasse Schöne of Denmark in action against Ireland's Robbie Brady during last night's Nations League B match at Ceres Park in Aarhus
Martin O'Neill

The beatings will stop now and that is a comfort to anyone who cares about Irish football.

Not because the rot has stopped and the team has improved but we have simply run out of games to play, and games to lose. A 0-0 draw away to Denmark could be seen as progress, if you want to look at things that way, but an honest view is that four games in a row without a goal scored just shows the lack of ambition, lack of imagination and lack of a plan for how that sterile, goal-free spell can be ended.

A scoreless away draw can not be celebrated as the turning of the tide or the dawning of a brave new era. Confidence is shot, creativity has been abandoned.

Ireland used to be a side which other nations feared to play, especially in Dublin. When the draw for the Euro 2020 qualifiers is made, in Dublin, on Sunday week, Ireland will be the team in Pot Three that everyone else wants to get.

Benefit

The stats, the bad ones, just keep coming at this Republic of Ireland side. Just one win in a calendar year for the first time in 36 years. Four successive games without a goal for the first time in 22 years. Nine games played in 2018 without a goal being scored in the first half.

O'Neill, and his employers, will point to the number of debutants included in the last 12 months as men like Michael Obafemi, Enda Stevens, Ronan Curtis, Darragh Lenihan, Aiden O'Brien and Shaun Williams have all come on the scene, while teenagers Lee O'Connor and Caoimhin Kelleher will benefit from their time with the squad.

But Irish football, not just the current Republic of Ireland senior side, is in trouble. During the game last night, word spread among the 1,000-strong away support (and then went further on social media) that a banner, which was critical of FAI CEO John Delaney, was confiscated by stadium security.

Issues like that, the age profile of the FAI board, the debt on the Aviva Stadium, those serious issues have to be met head-on, no matter who manages the senior team.

Let's not build up Denmark too much: they were very ordinary last night, but they didn't need to be special as they'd already won the group, home fans just as bored as the away support.

Thursday's game at home to Northern Ireland was a friendly which had bile in the air and an edge on the field of play. Last night in Aarhus it was a competitive game which had all the elements of a meaningless friendly.

The Danes showed they were serious enough about the match by starting their captain Christian Eriksen, but as expected the Spurs man didn't last the 90 minutes and was replaced at half time. They tinkered around on a boggy pitch for long spells, getting a grip on things in the last few minutes of the first half when they had their best chances but were still unable to get past Darren Randolph.

What we got from Ireland was what we expected: a muddled display by a team lacking in confidence and devoid of shape.

The closest that the boys in white shirts came to scoring, at least in the early exchanges, was a free kick from Robbie Brady on 34 minutes which hit the side netting and didn't terribly trouble Danish keeper Frederik Rennow, while in the 13th minute some slack defending from the Danes almost teed up an opportunity for Aiden O'Brien but, again, the danger was not real.

The Danes looked more likely to score. On 40 minutes their right-back, the impressive Peter Ankersen, whipped in a cross which forced a save from Randolph and when Nicolai Jorgensen swooped for the rebound, Seamus Coleman was there to mop up. Two minutes later, Eriksen stepped up to take a free-kick and while there was menace in the effort, it was off target, like much of the football that had come, from both teams, up to that point.

Eriksen was the difference between the sides in Dublin 12 months ago and with him off the field for the second half the home side looked to others to step up, while Ireland looked anywhere and nowhere for their own inspiration.

O'Neill and Keane were frustrated figures on the sideline, Keane in particular ranting at Richard Keogh for some slack defending on 67 minutes which gifted Danish forward Jorgensen a good chance, but the Feyenoord player was unable to make it count.

There was frustration weeping from every part of the Irish outfit. With 17 minutes left on the clock, Coleman bounded forward, advanced past the half-way line, sent in a cross which went nowhere and his response was to smack the turf in anger, at himself for the waste of possession and at the general state of the team. A night and a year to forget.

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