Christian Eriksen stars as Denmark rout Ireland 5-1, book World Cup spot
DUBLIN, Ireland -- Three points from Tuesday's UEFA playoff as Denmark booked a place at the 2018 World Cup with an emphatic 5-1 win over Ireland.
1. Eriksen destroys Irish resistance
With three goals from three chances, Christian Eriksen rocketed Denmark to Russia. Ireland had simply no answer to Tottenham's playmaker as his display of Danish dynamite destroyed their dream of reaching a first finals since 2002.
Instead, Denmark will make their first appearance at a World Cup since 2010, when Eriksen, just 18, was the youngest player at the tournament. Next summer, as a 26-year-old, he will travel as his nation's undoubted talisman and hero. His was a display that utterly ruined what had been a night tinged with pre-match optimism and had started so brightly for the hosts in Dublin.
Defender Shane Duffy sent the Aviva Stadium into raptures when scoring with a set-piece header after just six minutes. Robbie Brady's ball forward brought a hurried attempt to volley clear from Nicolai Jorgensen and Duffy was on hand to nod over Kasper Schmeichel, who got his positioning all wrong.
Almost immediately, the onus was on Denmark and they responded. Ireland goalkeeper Darren Randolph made a fine, full-length save from a William Kvist drive in the 17th minute, and soon followed that up with a smart stop of a Pione Sisto snapshot.
Ireland were already making the hurried clearances that tired players make in the dying embers of matches and desperately needed another goal to both steady nerves and break the Danes' spirit. Good chances that fell to Daryl Murphy and James McClean had manager Martin O'Neill hopping in agitation when they were dragged wide and when Sisto escaped down the left after a short corner, Ireland's defence fatally lost its shape. Chelsea's Andreas Christensen seized on the ball and though his shot was hardly convincing, Cyrus Christie got himself in a tangle and could not stop himself deflecting the ball over the line.
The Middlesbrough defender will doubtless have nightmares over a clumsy and unfortunate failure to clear the ball. It proved to be the moment to set the tone for an evening of agony. Coming in the 29th minute, it silenced a previously deafening noise level from the home fans and the Danes immediately recovered their jolted confidence.
Eriksen's first goal three minutes later was a thing of beauty, struck with a class that gave Randolph no chance. It was a chip that paired precision and power after an error by Stephen Ward gave him a clean shot on goal. The hosts' fabled rock-solid defending had gone horribly soft and after scoring just just six goals in 10 qualifying games, O'Neill's team were in uncharted territory.
Their efforts after half-time betrayed a growing panic and after McClean, frenziedly haring around in search of an impossible comeback, lost possession, Eriksen curled in his second goal after 63 minutes.
He would not stop there. Ward made another mistake, slipping and presenting Eriksen with a close-range hat-trick chance he would not refuse. In the 90th minute, Nicklas Bendtner's strike added insult to the Ireland side's deeply injured pride.
2. Eriksen a cut above the opposition
Denmark's task seemed fairly simple: try to tempt the Irish from their defensive shell and as coach Age Hareide had admitted before the match, get Eriksen far more time on the ball than he'd enjoyed during that turgid 0-0 draw in Copenhagen. Duffy's early goal looked to have ruined those well-laid plans, but it eventually turned out that the Irish had scored far too early. They were always going to struggle with the task of defending for 84 minutes.
O'Neill's preferred path to victory during his reign has been to keep things tight, grab an advantage late on and then defend it to the death. Such was Ireland's route to victory over Italy at last year's Euros and in their final group game in Wales last month.
Eriksen, who prefers to play further forward for Tottenham and has lately done so for his country, ended up dropping deep to find space and found plenty of it. Fatally for Ireland, he would eventually find himself in positions where he could finish them off, bursting between sagging defensive lines to score those brilliant goals.
It was a level of class that deserved to grace a World Cup finals and existed far beyond Ireland's level.
3. Ireland must search for heroes
The roar that followed the Irish national anthem, "Amhrán na bhFiann," was truly deafening as the home fans dreamed of a fourth trip to the World Cup finals, where far-flung Russian cities could one day be mentioned in the same breath as places like Genoa from 1990, New Jersey from 1994 and Yokohama in 2002.
It was not to be. Ireland's current generation isn't full of players like David O'Leary, Ray Houghton or Robbie Keane, the heroes of those famous hours, and for many of those upon whom O'Neill and assistant Roy Keane called, failure to make Russia looks the end of the line.
Former captain John O'Shea, an unused sub on Tuesday, is 36 and set to retire after this campaign while Wes Hoolahan is 35. Murphy, a late developer, has had to wait until turning 34 before becoming his country's first-choice striker while Jon Walters, badly missed in these playoffs, is also 34.
The problem for O'Neill and whomever may follow him as manager is that there appears to be little else breaking through from the youth ranks. Only Callum O'Dowda, dropped for David Meyler before the second leg, is under 25. That talent gap may lead to Ireland's extended absence from the World Cup finals.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.