Football | Ireland’s road to the play-offs

David Smith

Ireland face Denmark at Parken Stadium tonight in the first leg of their World Cup play-off.

After 13 months of qualifiers, it comes down to two clashes against the Danes, with a place in next year’s tournament in Russia at stake.

Here are the key moments over the past 13 months which have led us here.

Clinical McClean

Let’s start with the obvious.

It all came down to Cardiff.

Ireland arrived at the Cardiff City Stadium in their final Group D game knowing anything less than three points against a high-flying Wales side would end their World Cup dreams.

The boys in green produced a typically courageous and disciplined performance, typified by SHane Duffy’s massive performance at the heart of the defence, though every player played his part in the Welsh capital.

It was a game of few chances, but Derry native James McClean made no mistake after Jeff Hendrick’s low cross and Harry Arter’s intelligent dummy. His right-footed half-volley flew into the bottom corner and left Wales ‘keeper Wayne Hennessy as a helpless spectator.

The West Brom winger scored four goals in Group D, making him Ireland’s top scorer, but this was his most important.

His two goals in Moldova also handed Ireland a 3-1 win, and his winner in Austria (as discussed below) was a huge step towards the play-offs.

Dramatic draw

After an excellent showing at Euro 2016, Ireland were handed a tough opening tie in their World Cup qualifying campaign with a trip to Belgrade to take on eventual Group D winners Serbia.

Jeff Hendrick put the visitors ahead with a deflected strike in the first half – his first international goal – but two second half strikes from Filip Kostic and Dusan Tadic (penalty) respectively put Serbia 2-1 ahead with 20 minutes remaining.

Super sub Daryl Murphy rose highest from a corner in the 81st minute to power a header into the back of the net, scoring his first international goal, and earning O’Neill’s side a crucial point in the process.

In hindsight, it was an excellent point in a difficult fixture, highlighted further by the fact that Serbia came away from the Aviva with all three points a year later.

Victory in Vienna

Ireland’s performance away to Austria was arguably their best in Group D.

Austria entered Euro 2016 as touted dark horses for the tournament after a stunning qualification campaign, but flopped at the tournament, and have struggled hugely since.

That said, Austria boast several excellent players such as David Alaba and Marko Arnautovic, and it is never easy to leave Vienna with three points.

However, that is precisely what Martin O’Neill’s charges did.

Ireland produced a dogged, watertight defensive performance, and scored a wonderful breakaway goal which was finished expertly by James McClean.

David Meyler was superb in the middle, and set up the counter attack before Wes Hoolahan found McClean with a delightful through ball.

The left winger’s low drive went through the ‘keeper’s legs, and Ireland dug deep to hold on to a massive three points in the Austrian capital.

Captain fantastic

Ireland’s clashes against Georgia are always close affairs. We have never lost to Georgia, but have also never beaten Georgia by more than a goal.

Many regarded Ireland’s first home game of the group as a foregone conclusion, but the boys in green stumbled over the line against a well organised Georgian side who were actually the better side at the Aviva

Seamus Coleman’s scrappy and fortuitous goal after a determined run was enough to earn all three points in a game which could easily have finished as a draw, or even in a home defeat given Georgia’s first half chances in Dublin.

Instead, the Everton right back came up with an important goal which ensured Ireland built on their draw in Serbia in the opening group game.

It was far from a vintage performance, but the Irish captain found a way to win.

A miserable month

While we are busy celebrating Ireland making the play-offs, it’s convenient to forget that we were in a fantastic position to top Group D.

The aforementioned victory in Vienna left Ireland in pole position to top the group of six, which would have sealed automatic qualification for next summer’s World Cup in Russia.

A 0-0 draw at home to Wales in March felt like two points dropped, particularly after Neil Taylor’s second half dismissal for a leg-breaking challenge on Irish skipper Seamus Coleman.

Then, two disastrous results last month threatened to derail Ireland’s charge towards Russia.

An insipid draw against Georgia in Tbilisi was followed up by a home defeat to Serbia a few days later, which meant that Wales – who had started poorly – were suddenly a point ahead of Ireland with just two games remaining in the group.

Ireland took an early lead in Georgia through a Shane Duffy header, but were extremely poor on the night, and Georgia deserved their equalizer and a share of the spoils.

Serbia then claimed a 1-0 win at the Aviva through former Manchester City left back Alexander Kolarov’s fine strike.

These two results meant that Ireland had failed to win a competitive game in 2017, but this was remedied last week against Moldova, when Daryl Murphy’s impressive first half brace handed Ireland a 2-0 win at the Aviva, teeing up the winner-takes-all clash with Wales in Cardiff.

It has been a dramatic road to the play-offs, but there’s surely plenty of twists and turns left on the path to Russia.