Northern Ireland’s World Cup dream ended, but there’s still hope for the Republic of Ireland
Northern Ireland have failed to qualify for the World Cup finals, but all the players, staff and fans should feel proud after reaching this stage of the competition. Manager Michael O’Neill has taken these players further than anyone could have imagined, especially after the Euro 2016 performance. Northern Ireland earned a respectable nil-nil draw through the mud and the rain of Basel, but it wasn’t enough to book their place to the World Cup 2018 in Russia after losing 1-0 in Belfast last Thursday. Switzerland dominated both possession and chances over the two legs, but the game was decided by the first leg’s controversial penalty. The Romanian referee, Ovidiu Hategan, punished Blackburn Rovers’ midfielder Corry Evans for a deliberate handball that never was. Michael O’Neill’s men needed just a goal, but the closest they came was in the first minute of added time when Jonny Evans’ far post header was denied by Ricardo Rodriguez.
On the flip side, the Republic of Ireland are just 90 minutes away from their first World Cup since 2002 after registering a nil-nil draw against Denmark in Copenhagen last week. The Irish were pretty bad in terms of keeping hold of the ball, but it was a great result overall and the players left the pitch to a standing ovation from their delighted supporters. It was an ugly football display from Ireland, but if manager Martin O’Neill can book their spot at the World Cup for the first time in the last 16 years, nobody will care how he did it. On the other hand, Denmark had three excellent chances over the course of the 90 minutes, but Andreas Cornelius, Stryger Larsen and Christian Eriksen all missed the chance to scored. The Danes don’t have the same team they had in 1986 and their team now relies only on the supremely in-form Christian Eriksen. The world-class midfielder will be 26 by the time the World Cup starts, which is the perfect age to display his class at this stage.
Overall, it was another clean sheet for Martin O’Neill, but an away goal for the Danes in Dublin could prove decisive after the first leg result. O’Neill tried to motivate his players after the game by saying “You don’t want to die wondering what it’s like to play at a World Cup’. Ireland should feel confident ahead of this second-leg clash against Denmark, as their home form over the past three years has seen them lose just three of their last 22 games across all competitions.