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Friday 17 November 2017

'Rope-a-dope' method worked but different plan is needed now

(l-r) Callum O'Dowda takes on Pione Sisto
(l-r) Callum O'Dowda takes on Pione Sisto

Somebody once complained, "Russian stories never have happy endings."

But Ireland may yet write their own Russian epic.

Saturday's nil-all draw in Copenhagen offers both teams a chance to qualify.

Ireland will have home advantage. But they have to win.

You might be better off consulting a fortune teller as attempting to predict how this one's going to play out.

Denmark had scored 10 goals in their previous four home matches, so Danish hopes were high for a win.

But Ireland seldom fail to surprise. When the chips were down in our last group match against Wales in Cardiff, the lads pulled off a 1-0 heist.

Before Saturday's match, Martin O'Neill confirmed: "We have a plan, naturally. We want, obviously, to try to negate their strengths. But at the same time we want to play on the front foot if we can."

The front foot wasn't much in evidence over the 90 minutes as the team worked diligently to neutralise every attack.

It helped that Danish manager Age Hareide preferred to play a long ball game on a problem pitch.

The Danes had boasted that Christian Eriksen was worth as much as the entire Irish team on the transfer market, but Ireland reduced his scoring opportunities to an occasional long range shot.

Ireland had set out their stall when in the sixth minute Cyrus Christie unceremoniously relieved the Spurs star of the ball.

As wave after wave of Denmark attacks were repelled, it wasn't pretty to watch. Not unless you enjoy watching head tennis or are a fan of the Poc Fada.

O'Neill's plan was obvious.

This strategy was called "rope-a-dope" when first introduced by Muhammad Ali for his famous Rumble in the Jungle with George Foreman in 1974.

The idea was simple, keep your guard up, soak up the punches and the pressure and then, having absorbed the punishment at no great cost, when your opponent reckons you've little to offer, be ready to exploit any mistakes with swift counter moves.

On Saturday night, the Ireland manager gave the old scam a new twist.

Leaving striker Shane Long and playmaker Wes Houlahan out of his starting line-up, he was signalling a side with no ambition. Other than being ready to withstand a battering.

Ireland dealt with the expected incoming fire by slamming the ball back into no-man's land.

Like Ali, Ireland rode their luck at times.

Twelve minutes in, a delightful diagonal ball from Simon Kjaer presented Jens Stryger Larsen with an option to shoot. Darren Randolph's block fell to Andreas Cornelius whose snap shot went straight to the Ireland keeper's breadbasket.

The biggest fright of the night came around the half-hour mark when a blocked Eriksen shot fell to a Danish player.

This time Pione Sisto blasted wide.

While Ireland came more in to the game late in the second half, set pieces were ineffective and some players seemed to lack their customary sharpness.

If Harry Arter tries to pick out forward passes tomorrow, it'll be more positive than his tidying up role on Saturday.

A percentage improvement from Robbie Brady could help tilt the outcome in Ireland's favour.

"Darren has been superb," said O'Neill afterwards about Ireland's goalkeeper. "An away goal would have been great but we didn't carve out that many chances. So we can't start saying we should have got an away goal."

O'Neill won't need his assistant Roy Keane to remind him of the dangers of a home tie.

Roy was crucial to the Mick McCarthy Ireland team which got a nil-all draw away to Turkey in the Euro 2000 play-offs.

That time it wasn't enough. Turkey went through thanks to an away goal in a 1-1 draw in Dublin.

This time, things could be different.

"Before the campaign, if we were offered a chance to win a one-off game against Denmark at home, we'd have bitten your hand off," said Harry Arter on Saturday night.

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