Republic of Ireland 1 Denmark 1
The Republic of Ireland have been here before, too many times. The sense of deflation is familiar, the frustration excruciating, that harsh realisation they are not good enough as bitter-tasting as it has ever been.
This was no hard-luck story, just the natural order of things when you are a third-tier European nation who have won three competitive games in 25 months. This was Ireland’s fourth draw in their group and the sixth time in a row they have failed to beat Denmark.
They got what they deserved, a play-off place, because well organised and hardworking can only take you so far. The failure to nurture any creative players or unearth a quality striker has proven as costly for Mick McCarthy as it did his predecessor, Martin O’Neill.
They gave it a good go here, enough to draw applause at the end rather than boos. They set up a rousing finale when Matt Doherty bundled in a late header but did not have the firepower to capitalise on the pressure they built.
The visitors did, scoring with their only shot on target from the former Middlesbrough striker Martin Braithwaite, played onside by Ireland captain Shane Duffy, his run untracked by Doherty. It was a poor goal, lazy defending and so costly.
All is not lost. Ireland can still qualify for next summer’s European Championships, but it is difficult to imagine a team that has only beaten Gibraltar (twice) and Georgia at home, since beating Wales in Cardiff, in October 2017, winning two games back to back in the play-offs.
“I am immensely proud of the players for the way they played but disappointed with the result,” said McCarthy. “I’ve got three months to prepare for the play-offs, let’s see who we get but if we play as well as that against other teams, we can beat them.
“I’ve got to take the result, but that is the only thing I’m disappointed with. We weren’t clinical enough, but the lads left everything out there. The turning point was conceding the first goal and it was a poor goal to concede.”
He might be proud, but it leaves McCarthy’s second stint as Ireland boss on the brink of failure, an underwhelming return of functional victories against weaker teams, grinding draws and low-scoring defeats.
Nobody feels inspired, it has been tough to enjoy. Ireland have been hard to beat and were again. They have hung in there, nothing more. To go into the final match, at home, needing a win, it was a triumph of sorts, but still ends in failure.
A win, any type of win would have done, but the Danes were confident and calm. The last time the Irish needed to beat them in Dublin to qualify for a major tournament, they smashed them 5-1 and went to the World Cup in Russia instead.
They were not going to be flustered by a few roars from the crowd, unnerved by flares being lit in the stand. Denmark had been here, done that and won easily. This time they drew, but it was enough. Ireland did not show them anything they had not already dealt with in previous encounters.
If anything, it was the visitors who looked the more likely to score in the first half, camped in Ireland’s territory, and the home supporters resorted to cheering clearances rather than shots.
Suddenly Ireland began to string some passes together and out of nowhere, after some fantastic hold-up play, David McGoldrick’s pass found Conor Hourihane. The Aston Villa midfielder took it, the Denmark defence opened up, but his shot was weak, straight at goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel.
Moments like that needed to be seized, although minutes later, Browne caught hold of a half-volley sweetly and Schmeichel was scrambling, relieved to watch the shot curl beyond his reach and wide.
For the first time, Denmark looked a little ruffled and rushed, Duffy just unable to get his head on Glenn Whelan’s cross in stoppage time. The boys in green finished the first half in the ascendency and Hourihane’s vicious, dipping cross was just about kept out by Schmeichel, after it had bounced in front of him, at the start of the second.
Denmark began to think about containment, sitting deep, wasting time. Ireland kept coming, but the goal would not come, McGoldrick scooping an effort, on the turn, over the bar.
Even after Braithwaite had scored, Ireland kept going but they do not have any creative players and they do not have any natural finishers, McGoldrick heading another half-chance over and James McClean scuffing a daisy cutter from long range. Familiar gripes and a familiar outcome.
Republic of Ireland (4-5-1): Randolph 6; Doherty 6, Duffy 6, Egan 6 (Clarke h-t), Stevens 7; Browne 7, Hendrick 5, Whelan 6 (Maguire 82), Hourihane 6 (Robinson 68), McClean 6 McGoldrick 7
Subs: O’Hara,Travers, Maguire, Brady, Robinson, Long, Byrne, Judge, Cullen, Parrott, Collins
Denmark (4-1-2-1-2): Schmeichel 7, Dalsgaard 6, Zanka 7, Kjær 7, Stryger 6; Schöne 6; Delaney (Hojbjerg 13), Braithwaite 7; Eriksen 7; Poulsen 6, Cornelius 6 (Dolberg 33)
Subs: Hansen, Ronnow, Ankersen, Andersen, Knudsen, Christensen, Skov, Gytkjaer, Norgaard, Wass