With the stakes raised, all roads lead to the Aviva Stadium for the next stage of the Republic of Ireland’s World Cup dreams, as the Boys in Green prepare to take on Denmark for a place at next summer’s showpiece tournament.
After a helter skelter group, which saw the Republic see off Austria, Georgia and win a last-ditch win against Wales, Ireland now face a gruelling two legs against the Nordic counterparts as the nation hopes to reach their first World Cup since 2002.
The Republic of Ireland’s record at play-offs has been a mixed bag. Scattered memories of Iran in 2002, combined with the sting of France in 2009 paint a blurred reflection of a country always on the cusp of success. Since the Republic’s first appearance in a major competition, the 1988 European Championships, Ireland have qualified for three tournaments via the playoff system, and missed out on four occasions.
Between 1996-2000 was the worst period for the Irish in qualification. In the shadows of the great Jack Charlton era; including the quarterfinals of the 1990 World Cup and memorable wins against England, Italy and Romania, Ireland lost the play off for the 1996 European Championships, the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000. This journey was eased on the way to South Korea in 2000 when the Republic overcame Iran 2-0 at the Lansdowne Road; overturning a 1-0 defect from the way leg, to book their place at the 2002 World Cup.
Ireland’s last appearance at the World Cup play-offs is marred with regret and disdain after a lacklustre 2003-2008. The Boys and Green had found form under new manager Giovanni Trapattoni, finishing second in a group with Italy, Georgia, Cyprus, Bulgaria and Montenegro. Ireland needed one last jump at the hands of an aging French hurdle to get to South Africa 2010. Trailing 1-0 from the first leg at Croke Park, Robbie Keane levelled the game at the Stade de France, sending the Irish hopes into extra time in the ‘City of Lights’. What happened next needs no introduction, as then-Barcelona star Thierry Henry blatantly handled the ball to set up William Gallas, who made it 2-1 to the French in the twilight of the game.
Frowns were transformed across Ireland’s Euro 2012 and 2016 campaigns, as the Irish used the system to secure qualification to Poland and later France. Overcoming Russia, Andorra, Slovakia, Armenia and Macedonia helped Ireland set up a playoff against Estonia, which was a one-sided affair where the Irish ran out 5-1 winners.
Out of the fog of Bosnia Ireland secured a 1-1 draw in November 2016, with Johnny Walters sealing the result with a brace for 2-0 at the Aviva Stadium. In a group mirroring Ireland’s World Cup group of 2016/17, Ireland had overcome Scotland, Germany and Georgia to book their place on the way to France in the summer of ‘16.
The meeting between Denmark & Ireland will be a first in ten years for Martin O’Neil and his men, as Ireland most recently played the Danes in 2007, beating them 4-0. Ireland also boast the record as the most successful country at qualifying for UEFA tournaments without a professional football league.
Denmark competed in group E alongside Poland, Montenegro, Romania, Armenia and Kazakhstan, where they finished second with 20 points. Denmark recorded six wins in their group, two losses and two draws, with highpoints including results like a 4-0 rout of Poland in September 2017 in Copenhagen. Denmark, despite these promising showings, were inconsistent, including 0-0 and 1-1 draws against Romania.
The main man to watch is Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Christian Eriksen, who bagged himself eight goals in the qualification campaign. Interesting fact behind Thomas Delaney from the Danish camp: the Werner Bremen midfielder, who bagged four goals in qualification, has family rooted in Ireland, as his great-grandfather moved from Ireland to Denmark during the Great Famine (Gaeilge – An Gorta Mór).