Ireland were unseeded heading into the play-off draw for the World Cup, and their list of potential opponents looked daunting. The mighty Italians were in there, along with Croatia and Switzerland, who have achieved some quietly impressive results in recent major tournaments.
Eventually, the Irish were paired with Denmark, who, on paper at least, appear to be the weakest of the four seeded teams. The Danes haven’t qualified for a major tournament since Euro 2012 and although they performed well in qualifying this time around, it wasn’t the hardest group. They finished a distant second behind Poland, whilst finishing comfortably ahead of Montenegro and Romania.
Ireland faced a tricky challenge in qualifying from their group, coming up against Serbia, Austria and Wales. In the end, it came down to their last match, where only a win in Wales would suffice for the Irish. They comfortably stifled Wales’s attacking talents, such as Aaron Ramsey and Tom Lawrence, and nicked a 1-0 victory with a fine finish from James McClean.
Christian Eriksen is the most obvious threat for the Danes in the play-off. He scored eight goals in qualifying and has started the season well for Spurs, with three goals and three assists. Midfielder Thomas Delaney could have an impact too. His performances for FC Copenhagen caught the eye in last season’s Champions League and he even has several Irish ancestors!
Robbie Brady was in danger of missing this contest, after being cited for an alleged headbutt on Ashley Williams in the game against Wales. Fortunately, he was cleared of any wrongdoing and his tricky wing-play could well be the key to unlocking the Danish defence. Irish fans will be encouraged by his big game pedigree, the Burnley ace netting against Italy and France in Euro 2016.
Ireland will be missing some key players for the two-legged clash. James McCarthy has been struggling with injury all season, and a hamstring issue keeps him out here. Jonathan Walters is absent with a knee injury whilst Championship duo Richard Keogh and Sean Maguire aren’t fit enough to play either. Regular starter David Meyler will miss the away leg through suspension.
Denmark appear to have all their players coming back to full fitness at the right time. Captain Simon Kjaer picked up an injury for Sevilla at the weekend but is expected to be fit to lead the side out in Copenhagen on Saturday. Nicolai Jorgensen, Andreas Bjelland and ex-Cardiff City striker Andreas Cornelius are also winning their respective fitness races.
This play-off could be a low scoring affair. The Danes only shed eight goals in qualifying, unsurprising with the imposing Kasper Schmeichel between the sticks, whilst the Irish only conceded six. Denmark will be hoping for a good result in the home leg, because, with a raucous Irish crowd behind them in Dublin next Tuesday, the Boys in Green could be difficult to stop.