Martin O’Neill traditionally says little of note at the obligatory pre-match press conference; yet his body language usually speaks volumes.
Last November in Vienna, O’Neill radiated confidence, a man who believed that his side would turn over the hosts.
In total contrast, O’Neill sat crouched over at the top table last month in the cramped Cardiff City Stadium press room ahead of the must-win Wales encounter.
Perhaps the manager’s greatest battle yet as he sat on both the brink of his seat and World Cup elimination.
Roy Keane might have said he was “ready for war”.
The general, of course, came home with the spoils, with barely a casualty taken – David Meyler’s yellow card the only collateral damage of the smash and grab victory in the Welsh capital.
Both matches were away from home and both, as it happened, finished 1-0 in Ireland’s favour.
We’re 25 hours away from the big kick-off, but the party is already well and truly under way in Copenhagen, reports @OFlynnPaul #RTEsoccer pic.twitter.com/jHb961DKhH
— RTÉ Soccer (@RTEsoccer) November 10, 2017
What the manager would give for a repeat performance at the Parken Stadium in Copenhagen tonight (7.45pm).
The manager again went through the motions of the UEFA protocol late on Friday afternoon before his side got to take a wander about the play-off battleground, albeit for a shortened session with the fear of prying eyes in the adjacent offices that overlook the pitch, something that the FAI denies.
O’Neill’s demeanour this time was one of a content, yet unfulfilled man; happy in the knowledge that he had brought his fourth seed side to a second-place finish to reach the play-offs, while also knowing that the job was only half done.
But there was certainly confidence in the manager’s tone as he faced the local Danish and travelling Irish press.
There was also a feeling that he was starting to get irate with the idea that Ireland do not have the players, but have the team spirit.
O’Neill rightly pointed out the impressive fact that his side were unbeaten away from home in the campaign, which resulted in taking seven points from nine on offer at Belgrade, Vienna and Cardiff.
And while the manager also admitted that there were limitations to his side, he also emphasised the maturity and experience that was now embedded in the squad, which should stand to his squad for this two-legged encounter.
“We’ve had tough games away from home, starting with Serbia and going right through,” said O’Neill at yesterday’s press conference at the Parken Stadium.
“We have remained unbeaten away from home, which is no mean feat and that is a testament to the sort of character that is in the team.
“They have some excellent players, but so do we. And we’re going to try and play to our strengths.
“We’re going to have to play strongly. We will have to defend properly and we are going to have to take our chances. And over the two legs we will give ourselves a chance.
“I think through experience, the players have matured. I think there is a good belief in the camp that maybe didn’t exist a couple of seasons ago. There is an inner self-belief, not that is flaunted, that we can go and compete.”
O’Neill is also a pragmatic manager and knows that he will most likely have little room to complain should his side not make it through to the World Cup as, barring a catastrophic refereeing decision, the better and more deserving team generally comes out on top in a two-legged contest.
“We know that we must compete for almost everything at every given minute and while every international side has limitations, we are going to try to remain as strong as we can, play to our strengths.
“We need to use that experience that we’ve had over the last couple of years to some good effect and that is what we are going to try and do.”
Ireland’s Front Foot Approach
The unique nature of the play-off format actually allows the away team to play with a bit more intent, knowing the value of an away goal or two, while the home side cannot play their natural game, knowing how important it is to keep a clean sheet.
And while O’Neill emphasised the need to ensure that his team were still in the tie by full-time, he also gave the impression that his side are going to attempt to take something back to Dublin for Tuesday’s second leg.
“The away goal is important and we are just going to go for it,” said O’Neill.
“We have to get on the front foot, as we were against Wales once we got a foothold in the game and the game levelled out. But [this]is a different test and it is one that we have to be up for.”
Murphy’s Law Should Hand Long Short Straw
One of the beauties of the manager’s reluctance to give the slightest hint as to his starting XI allows the guessing game to commence in the days ahead of each international fixture.
For perhaps the first time in the manager’s tenure, the team is beginning to pick itself for the important competitive games.
Even in Seamus Coleman’s absence, there is a stable look to the back four protecting Darren Randolph’s goal, while midfield options are limited and a case of picking what is available.
O’Neill’s real decision that he needs to ponder is whether to opt for Shane Long or Daryl Murphy to lead the line.
Long’s pace and energy would put the fear into even the most composed defender and the Southampton striker wins his fair share of free-kicks in dangerous areas.
However, Long’s goalscoring form is a real concern and Murphy offers better options in terms of holding the ball up and bringing others into play.
And should Ireland attempt this front-foot football, then Murphy would appear the obvious option.
CAUTION: Yellow Card Alert for Both Sides
David Meyler is missing for tonight’s encounter and no doubt the Hull City midfielder will come back into the team for Tuesday’s second leg.
But the manager is most likely to encounter serious selection issues, considering the amount of players on yellow cards going into tonight’s first leg.
Common sense from FIFA could have prevailed had they drawn a line under the group stages, allowing both sides to put out their best available XI.
But as a result, Harry Arter, Ciaran Clark, Cyrus Christie, Shane Duffy, James McClean, Aiden McGeady, Murphy, Randolph, Stephen Ward and Glenn Whelan all carry cautions into tonight’s game.
And tonight’s opponents are also in a similar position as ten of their squad are also one booking away from missing the second leg, including danger men Christian Eriksen, Thomas Delaney, Yussuf Poulsen and Andreas Cronelius, as well as defender Simon Kjaer and keeper Kasper Schmeichel.
Parken the Bus on a Bumpy Pitch?
Winter has arrived in Copenhagen and it is safe to say that the hometown team are none too impressed by the state of the playing surface at the Parken Stadium.
A patchy pitch awaits and the Danes believe that it will surely suit the Irish and their perceived hoof-ball tactics.
But while Ireland might not be too adept at playing tidy, possession football throughout the entire contest, O’Neill’s side would still rather a proper pitch to perform.
Passes, when they are attempted – still need to reach, at least, the vicinity of their intended targets so the poor pitch is likely to affect both sides equally.
And should Ireland sit back and attempt to absorb the expected Danish pasting, a bumpy pitch might just be what causes a mis-timed or sliced clearance, which could prove catastrophic for Ireland.
Live coverage of Denmark v Ireland on RTÉ 2 (7.25pm), live radio commentary on RTÉ Radio 1’s Saturday Sport and live blog on RTÉ.ie from 6pm.