Football | 1 week ago

Nowhere in the world are expectations so small but support so big.

Nowhere else on this planet would a team who've drawn their first leg away still come in as underdogs with 90 minutes at home standing between them and the World Cup. Nowhere else would that pressure be taken completely off of their shoulders by the entire country who simply have one demand - just one demand - of the players who represent them:

Give it a lash.

If Martin O'Neill qualifies for Russia next summer, he'll have to go down as the most successful Irish manager of all time given the nature of the landscape when he came in and given what he will have done in such a short space of time with a squad without even one superstar.

But what Martin O'Neill should be credited with most is bringing the roar back to Lansdowne Road. In the space of two years, he took the keys to the Aviva off Trapattoni who, despite relative success in one campaign, failed to inspire the nation with belief and togetherness and largely fell in line with the decade previous which had succumb to apathy.

October 2015 changed everything. Shane Long changed everything.

There really is something mystical about Martin O'Neill.

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When he took over Villa, his former Celtic defender Stanislav Varga said:

"Those players better prepare for the day Martin O'Neill looks them in the eye and asks if you believe you can be a winner."

Consistently, he is able to force individuals and teams to rise above themselves and play on levels they've never known before. By doing that, this infectious belief spreads around the island that anything could happen. Ireland could beat Germany. Ireland could beat Italy. Ireland could qualify for the World Cup.

We've all had our issues, we've all whinged about tactics and the Georgia result and we cry every time Wes Hoolahan is left out in the cold but what Martin O'Neill does better than anyone else in sport is reduce the opposition.

He reduces them to skin and bones. They tire, they sweat and they bleed just like every other human does. They fear and they panic just like anyone else. They're not machines. They're only men.

We'll put 'em under pressure.

Ireland aren't just a defensive team and that's exactly what the Danes and, in truth, their cockiness, discovered on Saturday night. We're not a minnow throwing men behind the ball who you'll eventually just break because that's what logic dictates. We're a team full of the best athletes in the biggest league in world football relentlessly hounding opposition players in a test of sheer will and endurance that we usually win when it's played on those terms.

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If you can't last, if you can't be bothered, then the laws of physics side with Ireland.

O'Neill's men are ready to fight and the trick is that he has athletically fine-tuned and some technically-gifted footballers doing dogs' work because they know, when it comes down to it, nobody else is going to dig deeper at that well.

So the questions that O'Neill was asked in Monday's press conference were, in truth, misplaced.

The Irish manager was quizzed by the media about whether or not his team were physically and emotionally ready to go again into the breach just three days after battle in Copenhagen. It was almost disrespectful owing to the bare fact that those questions should've been reserved for the Danish camp because it is Ireland who has set these terms, it is Ireland who has declared war and it is Ireland who have planted the flag and told the Scandinavians to do something about.

As Robbie Brady said when he was asked to react to the Denmark comments about breaking the Irish spirit: "They can try."

It's not going to be easy for us but it's not going to be easy for them either.

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It might be another slog for Ireland. It might be a big ask for them to raise it to those levels of physicality and nuisance-like annoyance again but it's a bigger ask of the Danes to deal with it once more.

How much do they really want it? How far are they really prepared to go?

If it wasn't clear to them before Saturday night, it sure as hell is now. To beat Ireland to a place in the World Cup, Denmark are going to have to go to the very limits of their desire and beyond. They can talk all they want about passing and moving but when you have fit, hungry and, most importantly, smart and disciplined men - who just so happen to be decent footballers - following their every inch, you need something else.

Alex Ferguson's demand of his great Manchester United teams was always to match the opposition for commitment and the talent will shine through.

The only thing you're really in control of is your effort - everything else follows that baseline. Very few teams have been able to match the Irish though for their work rate, for their application and their driven desire to make things as miserable and as hateful for the man standing across from them.

And, in the white heat of a dark and cold Lansdowne Road under lights, with the whole country coming to a standstill and one game standing between Ireland and a fourth ever World Cup, Denmark won't have to equal what Ireland did on Saturday night, they'll have to go even further.

With the Aviva roar, with the Irish heart, with the words of Martin O'Neill ringing in their ears, the Danes had better be prepared for the fight of their lives. Because, if they're not, if they're in any way short of that, they won't get out of Dublin alive.

This will be like nothing they've experience before. This is Ireland.

Go and compete.

While you're here, check out the latest episode of #SportsJOElive where we had Irish legends Shay Given and Clinton Morrison on the couch!


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Republic of Ireland, Denmark