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Tuesday 16 October 2018

'This Irish team is fuelled by inner belief' - O'Neill

'Defend properly and take our chances' is Irish mantra for clash in Copenhagen

Ireland boss Martin O’Neill. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland boss Martin O’Neill. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland players during squad training at Parken Stadium in Copenhagen, Denmark last night ahead of tonight’s World Cupplay-off first leg. Photo: Sportsfile

Almost every single public appearance by Martin O'Neill contains a reference to his own experiences as a player at two World Cup finals and his European Cup medals.

Now, in his job at the helm of a group of players who are 180 minutes away from their own moments of glory at a World Cup, his message is quite simple.

"We don't want to die wondering," he says as Ireland prepare to do battle with Denmark at a sold-out Parken Stadium in Copenhagen tonight.

"It's a great game for us, the same goes for Denmark. As far as we're concerned qualifying for Euros was a great achievement for us and some of the performances in France were great. Getting there was big and this is bigger."

His side have come through big tests before: beating Germany in Dublin when only a win would do, defeating Bosnia over two legs to make it to Euro 2016, winning against Italy in Lille to get out of the group, and winning in Wales.

Problems

All of those tasks had to be fulfilled and it's to the credit of O'Neill, his staff and players that the job got done.

Of course there was a 'but' attached to each of those. Germany could afford to lose in Dublin and still qualify; Bosnian opposition was about the best draw possible for Ireland in that play-off. Italy played a weakened side in Lille as they had already qualified; and Wales played in Cardiff without their best player (Gareth Bale) and had their key man on the night (Joe Allen) sandwiched out early on.

But Denmark away, a fully-fit, very strong and in-form Denmark? That, to paraphrase a term used by a bunch of men from the same county as O'Neill (The Undertones), is a different Cher O' Bowlies.

"They've got some excellent players who can cause a lot of problems - Eriksen has been playing fantastic football now for maybe 16 months, but he's not only Danish player who can play," he added.

"They have got some really good players - but so have we. We are going to try to play to our strengths - we are going to try to play strongly, we're going to have to be able to defend properly when it comes to it and we are going to have to take our chances.

"That's what we are going to have to do and over the two legs, we will give ourselves a chance, we hope."

O'Neill spoke at length yesterday about his (positive) opinion of Nicklas Bendtner, a player he had under his wing at Sunderland. "I remember one game, it might have been against Liverpool where he was unplayable and got us the three points and overall stopped the side from being relegated and played a big part in that," O'Neill said. Yet Denmark have such an embarrassment of riches that they can afford to start with Bendtner on the bench.

Steel

Ireland have four strikers in the squad, two uncapped (Scott Hogan and Aiden O'Brien), one who is planning for his 35th birthday (Daryl Murphy) and another (Shane Long) who is endurinig the worst dry spell, in terms of scoring goals, in his career.

And yet. And yet there is a steel which feeds confidence into O'Neill's mind, a swagger of self confidence in a set of players who were at a low ebb when he took over four years ago.

"Through experience the players have matured, I think there's a good belief in the camp that maybe didn't exist a couple of seasons ago," O'Neill added.

"It's an inner self belief, it's not one that is flaunted, it's an inner self belief that we can come out and compete.

"We know what we have to do, we know we must compete for almost everything at every given minute.

"And while every single international side has limitations somewhat, we are going to try and stay as strong as we possibly can, play to our strengths which is the most important thing,

"It's something we do and use that experience we've had in the last couple of years to some good effect. And that's what we're going to try and do."

O'Neill will be tested today before kick off. To start Shane Long and Daryl Murphy, or take a goal-shy Long out of the firing line? How to prepare a team which has 10 players on yellow cards, one caution away from suspension, for what's going to be a physical battle? How to make the best use of his bench?

The tests to date in his time as Ireland boss have been passed, boxes ticked.

But the road to a World Cup is bumpier, harder, than the route to the Euros. We will find out tonight what this manager is really made of.

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