With each crushing blow, the tone of the announcer at the Aviva Stadium grew flatter. ‘Goal for Denmark, number ten, Christian Eriksen.’
Three times he had to say it; three times the Tottenham ace scored to ruin Irish hopes of a World Cup finals place. This was high-quality attacking football to which Martin O’Neill’s team had no answer.
The Irish gave it a go here. They scored an ugly goal through Shane Duffy in the sixth minute and that brought the promise of something special. Ireland were ahead on the night and in the tie. Dreams of a Russian summer began to form.
Christian Eriksen’s stunning hat-trick sent Denmark through to the 2018 World Cup in Russia at Ireland’s expense on Tuesday
James McClean reacts after Ireland’s hopes of playing at Russia 2018 were ended following a 5-1 loss to Denmark in Dublin
Denmark’s players celebrate at the final whistle as Ireland players are left dejected following the result at the Aviva Stadium
MATCH STATISTICS AND PLAYER RATINGS
Rep of Ireland: (4-2-3-1) Randolph 7.5; Christie 6.5, Clark 6.5 (Long 70, 6), Duffy 7, Ward 6; Meyler 6 (Hoolahan 46, 6), Arter 5 (McGeady 46, 6); Hendrick 6, Brady 6, McClean 6; Murphy 6.5
Goals: Duffy 6
Subs not used: Westwood, O’Shea, McShane, Whelan, O’Dowda, Hourihane, Hogan, Kevin Long, Doyle.
Denmark (4-2-3-1): Schmeichel 6; Christensen 6.5, Bjelland 6.5, Kjaer 6.5, Larsen 6 (Ankersen 53, 6); Delaney 6.5, Kvist 7; Poulsen 7 (Cornelius 69, 6), Eriksen 9, Sisto 8; Jorgensen 8 (Bendtner 83, 6). Booked: None.
Goals: Christie OG 29, Eriksen 32, 63, 73, Bendtner 89
Subs not used: Lossl, Jensen, Vestergaard, Mathias Zanka Jorgensen, Knudsen, Braithwaite, Lerager, Schone, Ronnow.
Man of the match: Christan Eriksen.
Referee: S Marciniak (Pol) 7.
But there was a problem. O’Neill’s team were playing a group of superior footballers and over the night the gap in quality grew so wide that the imperious Eriksen was able to stride right through it.
He is a marvel and no wonder they love him at Spurs. Technically proficient, he also has a boxer’s heart and a distance runner’s lungs. It is not a bad mix and it proved far too much for Ireland.
By the end it was 5-1 and that was cruel on O’Neill and his players. They had played their part in a rousing first half in particular.
After a series of goalless games across Europe in recent days, this was the antidote to so much cautious, nervous play.
Ireland had to play to win here and that, as strange as it sounds, is what did for them.
Once Denmark had equalised with a vital away goal, the home team had to get on the front foot and, quite simply, they are not used to that. With the back door open, they could not cope. The situation was made for Eriksen.
Duffy’s goal was comical in its creation — a free kick pumped into the box by Robbie Brady, a slice into the air by Denmark’s Nicolai Jorgensen and a header nudged by Duffy over the top of keeper Kasper Schmeichel, who had dashed from goal like a cat leaving a burning building.
It was, with all respect, the type of goal we might have hoped Ireland would score and one that would have horrified Denmark. The important factor was how both teams responded to the way the emphasis of the tie had shifted so early.
Ireland were hoping to seal qualification for their first World Cup finals since 2002 ahead of the second leg in Dublin
Shane Duffy nodded home just ahead of Kasper Schmeichel after a free-kick was diverted into his path by Nicolai Jorgensen
Duffy headed Ireland into an early lead in their World Cup play-off clash against Denmark but it proved a false dawn
Denmark, to their credit, did not blink. They imposed themselves immediately on Ireland with neat football and, after Daryl Murphy and James McClean had gone close with counter-attacking efforts, the Scandinavians pulled level when Andreas Christensen shot against a post.
The rebound struck Ireland right back Cyrus Christie on the leg and the ball trickled over the line.
It was an unfortunate goal in one sense but not in another. There had been some ominous football played by Denmark beforehand and there were already signs that when the visiting midfield passed fluently and expansively, the Irish could not handle it terribly well.
O’Neill had worried about this. He had hinted as much before the game. He had admitted his team could not match Denmark for ability.
Andreas Christensen watches on as Cyrus Christie inadvertently bundles his effort over the line to put Denmark level
Denmark’s Christensen roars with delight after his effort was diverted in by Ireland defender Christie for their equalising goal
Eriksen drilled home his side’s second from just outside the area after finishing off a flowing Denmark counter-attack
Eriksen wheels away in celebration after firing his side 2-1 in front following a swift counter-attack by Denmark
Duffy is floored after Denmark completed a quick turnaround with two goals in three first-half minutes putting them in front
So, when the game became an exercise in punch and counter-punch, it was always likely Ireland would hit the canvas. In the end, their chief tormentor was easily recognisable.
Ireland gave the ball away cheaply less than three minutes after Christie’s mishap, but the way the Danes moved it forward and then wide to Eriksen on the left was terrific.
The 25-year-old’s first-time finish with his right foot was just as impressive and Darren Randolph waved at air as the ball flew past him, crashing down off the bar and over the line.
With 12 minutes of the first half to play, the tie felt over. Ireland now needed two goals to progress and that seemed unlikely without taking on further water. After such a fantastic start, reality had bitten hard.
Ireland threatened briefly before the hour with a header from Duffy and a fizzing low cross from Christie. They were never lacking in courage.
Ireland manager Martin O’Neill urges his side on during the first half at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin on Tuesday evening
Denmark defender Simon Kjaer (right) wins an aerial battle with Daryl Murphy (left) as Thomas Delaney watches on
Eriksen placed home past Ireland keeper Darren Randolph from just outside the area after collecting a pass from Sisto
Eriksen celebrates after giving Denmark a two-goal cushion to put his country on course for the World Cup finals in Russia
But when another neat, careful movement by Denmark found Eriksen in a yard of space in the 63rd minute, he was able to balance himself perfectly to curl a left-foot shot to Randolph’s right and into the corner from 20 yards.
It was the type of difficult finish that excellent players make look simple, and it broke the Irish.
Later, with embarrassment looming, Stephen Ward miscontrolled the ball in his own area and Eriksen spanked it high into the net like a man slamming a door.
He could have scored another, could have finished with four. Eriksen had the ball in his hands briefly after Denmark won a penalty with seconds left but ultimately passed responsibility to substitute Nicklas Bendtner.
Arsenal must hope Eriksen was not merely saving his next significant act for Saturday’s north London derby.
Eriksen took advantage of a poor touch from Ireland defender Stephen Ward to complete his hat-trick at the Aviva Stadium
Eriksen runs over to celebrate with Denmark’s travelling support after scoring his 11th goal in his last 12 international matches
Former Arsenal man Nicklas Bendtner scored the fifth from the penalty spot to complete the rout as Ireland crashed out
Eriksen is embraced by Schmeichel at the final whistle as Denmark celebrate qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia
Denmark’s players lift coach Age Hareide into the air after they dismantled Ireland with a clinical display on Tuesday night
Andreas Cornelius sports a viking hat as the former Cardiff striker celebrates securing qualification for the 2018 World Cup