And lo, the spirit and awkwardness of Martin O’Neill’s Republic of Ireland were not enough. Those qualities took them to within touching distance of their first World Cup in 16 years but no further. Denmark, far superior in this play-off, will go instead. In Christian Eriksen they have a player who belongs among the elite, a point he expressed beautifully in Dublin with an exquisite hat-trick.
Fleetingly Ireland had Russia within their reach, Shane Duffy heading them into a sixth-minute lead. But by half-time Denmark had wrenched the World Cup ticket out of the home side’s hands and they never gave it back. They scored the away goal the Irish had dreaded when William Kvist’s ugly shot found the net via Cyrus Christie’s leg in the 29th minute. Then came Eriksen’s trio of beauties. It seemed like an unnecessary insult when Nicklas Bendtner scored from a late penalty.
It was an unseasonably clement November evening in Dublin but there was a giddy crackle in the air, with everyone in the 51,000-strong crowd, except for a couple of thousand Danes, willing the home team to make history. A generation of Irish children have no memory of seeing their country in a World Cup and now here they were, tantalisingly close to becoming peers of Brazil, Argentina, Spain and all the rest at next summer’s global showpiece. But boy, would O’Neill’s team have to fight for that privilege.
They had fought valiantly through 11 matches to get this far and the expectation was that the 12th would be the toughest. Denmark certainly intended making it so. O’Neill’s team selection suggested he recognised the threat the visitors carried and knew how much more difficult an away goal would make Ireland’s task. So he made only one alteration to the line-up that had shut out the Danes in Copenhagen, with David Meyler replacing Callum O’Dowda. If Ireland were to attack more adroitly than they did on Saturday, then that change would have to come from the same personnel, with loud verbal cues from a rambunctious crowd.
It took six minutes for that crowd’s wish to be granted. The goal owed nothing to new-found intricacy but no one cared about aesthetics when Nicolai Jorgensen’s attempt to clear a long free-kick by Robbie Brady resulted in the striker looping the ball backwards in his own box, inviting Duffy to soar high and nod the ball past the advancing Kasper Schmeichel and into the net from eight yards.
Duffy had scored a similar goal in Georgia in the group stages, after which Ireland had become so passive they almost encouraged the opponents to equalise, which Georgia eventually did. There would be serious jeopardy in doing the same here. But soon, whether by Ireland’s choice or the duress applied by Denmark, the hosts began backpedaling.
They were fortunate in the 10th minute that Stryger Larsen failed to connect properly with the ball after Simon Kjaer caught the Irish defence out with a long diagonal pass. Then they were grateful to Darren Randolph for diving to his left and tipping away a drive from 20 yards by William Kvist. Two minutes later the goalkeeper came to the rescue again, parrying a blast by Pione Sisto.
But in an increasingly frenetic game it was not one-way traffic. Daryl Murphy almost doubled Ireland’s lead with a dainty flick at the near post from a cross by Christie, his shot missing the target by inches. Moments later James McClean, released by Brady, stormed down the left and into the box before firing a yard past the far post.
Despite those raids, it was not looking like Ireland would last 90 minutes without conceding. As it turned out, they did not even last 29. There was both ingenuity and cruelty in the way they were infiltrated. After a short corner Sisto nutmegged Harry Arter and skittered into the box before sending a low cross to Kvist. The midfielder scuffed his shot but it hit a post and rebounded in off Christie. Given the value of the away goal, that equaliser put Denmark in front.
Three minutes later the visitors took a conventional lead, Eriksen sweeping the ball regally into the net from 20 yards and via the underside of the crossbar following a move that began when Stephen Ward was dispossessed on the left.
By half-time Ireland knew that to resurrect their World Cup dream they would have to score two goals in 45 minutes and avoid conceding again. Mission improbable.
Now O’Neill adopted a resolutely attacking stance, introducing Wes Hoolahan and Aiden McGeady for Meyler and Arter at half-time. But Denmark kept coming forward, Sisto forcing Randolph into another save with a long-range shot. Ireland did not trouble Schmeichel until Duffy got on the end of a corner in the 55th minute. As Ireland chased goals with abandon, Denmark sought to strike again on the counter. Randolph was rendered helpless in the 63rd minute by the sheer brilliance of Eriksen, who crowned a fine collective move by curling a shot into the bottom corner from 20 yards.
The Tottenham Hotspur player helped himself to a third goal by punishing a mistake by Ward and ramming the ball into the roof of the net 10 minutes later and Bendtner scored from the spot after a clumsy tangle with Duffy.