"When the competition starts in earnest in March...," said Martin O’Neill in yesterday’s pre-match press conference.

The manager revealed his true thoughts on the Nations League with that comment as he prepares to send his side out to seek revenge against Denmark for the mauling that Ireland received last November, a result that denied O’Neill and his squad a place in last summer’s World Cup.

O'Neill rarely speaks definitively regarding the Nations League and its merits, but yesterday we discovered that he views it as a stepping stone to the Euro 2020 qualifiers, which take place throughout 2019.

The former Celtic boss has never ridiculed this new UEFA venture and would be more than happy to secure safe passage to the next major tournament via this particular back-door route.

And the Derry man does regard it as a worthwhile initiative, which will help him to bring new players through and gain competitive experience in the process.

But going into tonight’s game, the competition appears irrelevant, as you get the impression that there is only one thing on the manager’s mind ahead of the clash with old team-mate Age Hareide.

"Denmark beat us convincingly last year. We'd like to redress that. We'll try to win the game," said O’Neill. Eleven months on and it is quite obvious that the manager’s pride needs to be restored after losing so emphatically, at home, with so much at stake.

"We chased the game and got picked off in the match," recalled O’Neill.

No mention, of course, of the half-time substitutions, which negated the team of all its shape, attempting to play the second half with no central midfielder of note.

O’Neill made a horrendous tactical mistake that night, a panicked move, much too early in the game. The manager has, at least, admitted that he got it wrong.

Which is why tonight’s game is more about getting the old winning feeling back in this Ireland squad with the bigger picture to plan for next year.

The manager did say one positive thing about the Nations League. He appears happy that it has pushed the qualifiers back to 2019 when he is hoping players like Seamus Coleman, Robbie Brady and James McCarthy will all be fit again and ready to push for Euro 2020 qualification. 

Everybody hurts

All week we’ve heard from players talking about the hurt they felt personally from the defeat last November so professional pride will take care of being in the right frame of mind for tonight’s game. 

James McClean and Shane Duffy were very vocal about the effect the result had on the players, and understandably so, as it would have cost many of them their only chance to play at the World Cup. 

"Everybody's hurting," says Jeff Hendrick. "We were, the fans were. That's the way it was, that's the way the game turned out, it wasn't a good night. 

"Us as players, we want to do well for ourselves, for our families and we want to get our performance levels high.
"Everybody's worked hard, everybody's training, everybody's looking bright and up for the game."


Will O’Neill play Harry Arter?

The midfielder’s return to the Ireland set-up so promptly after the messy affair last month shows the value that the management team see in the player, while also revealing the character of Arter, who was willing to work through the situation for the greater good.

In hindsight, the release of Stephen Ward’s WhatsApp message may have led to a wider public understanding of the situation, and while it was only one player’s second-hand account of what happened, it certainly led to a lot of empathy towards Arter.

The Cardiff City midfielder took a stand over something he believed in and ironically, Roy Keane probably respected the player’s gumption regarding the matter.

For O’Neill, the situation, he believes, will work as a positive for the team as it will drive Arter onwards to prove people wrong and bring something extra in his performance.

"I think the way he’s come back into the squad is to prove a point," said O’Neill. "It is up to the player now."

Expect Arter to start in midfield.


Keane remains integral behind the scenes

Despite the controversies of last month, Keane remains very much a part of the management team, and while we are likely to hear less from the former Ireland captain in public, behind the scenes, it would appear that the players still value his opinion.

"I enjoy it," admitted Hendrick, when asked about Keane’s involvement.

"After the last game when we played Wales, there were a few clips that I didn’t do well in. And he sat down and talked me through it and I tried to put that into practice in the Poland game.

"And personally, I thought my performance was better, and the team’s performance was better as well.

"So we will keep sitting down and picking his brain. He played in the same position as I do, so it is always good to do that."

Will Ireland line out with three at the back?

The big question all week in relation to the manager’s planned formation for the match tonight.

Following the disaster against Wales, Ireland went to Poland for last month’s friendly, played three at the back, and restored an element of pride to the team.

The manager freely admits that he selects the team and formation based on what players are fit and available when they turn up for training ahead of the game.

"We're trying to work out the system that best suits the players that we have available to us and the players who are likely to have some sort of impact in the game," said O’Neill.

Matt Doherty is the form player in this Irish squad, yet remarkably the Wolves wing-back has yet to earn any competitive football for his country.

O’Neill has 10 defenders in his squad, and seven of them have been playing their club football as central defenders, including Derrick Williams at Blackburn, which leaves just Doherty, Enda Stevens and Cyrus Christie.

Likewise, Stevens plays in a wing-back role for Sheffield United, so the logic would be to play a three-man defence with Stevens on the left and Doherty on the right.

The manager has played along with the concept all week long, but nothing is ever straightforward with an O’Neill XI.

The Opposition: Eriksen loss is huge for Ireland

The Ireland manager must not believe his luck this week as Christian Eriksen has been ruled out for Denmark, while Gareth Bale is looking very doubtful ahead of Tuesday night’s match.

The Danish playmaker has played every game under the reigning manager and he will leave a gaping hole in whatever XI are picked for tonight’s match.

Eriksen has been instrumental for this Denmark side, most notably, bagging a hat-trick in the Aviva last time out, however, his influence in the side goes a long way beyond what he does with the ball.

The midfielder’s mere presence lifts all around him and he brings the best out of his team-mates in much the same way that Bale does with the Welsh side.

But Denmark are far from a one-man team and will be more than capable of getting a result in Dublin tonight.

The visitors, however, will surely be less gung-ho in this game and will be content to sit back and defend and look to hit Ireland on the counter attack.

Hareide’s side still possess some real talent going forward with dangerous duo Yussuf Poulsen and Pione Sisto cutting in off the flanks, while Henrik Dalsgaard, and Jens Stryger Larsen will look to work the flanks once Denmark get a foothold in the game.

Thomas Delaney is always a threat running from deep as well as possessing a ferocious shot from distance.

But the onus will be on Lasse Schone to pull the strings for Denmark tonight, albeit from a deeper position than Eriksen.

The Ajax midfielder was struggling for his place in the starting XI for Denmark at the World Cup, but Schone proved to be their most influential player as they progressed to the knock-out stages.

Schone’s performance in the second half against Croatia was sublime, as Denmark bowed out of the tournament on penalties to the side who progressed to the final. Expect more of the same tonight, the Ajax man will need to be well marshalled.

Is there room for James McClean on the wing in a three-man defence?

So how will Ireland line out?

Despite the recent flirtations with the three-man defence, O’Neill’s Ireland sides have traditionally lined out with a flat back four.

In Poland, the back three were Richard Keogh, John Egan and Kevin Long, yet O’Neill will most likely start Ciaran Clark and Shane Duffy in the centre of defence.

Shane Duffy said he would be able to adapt to whatever system he is asked to play, yet he also added that if he plays in the middle of the three, he tends to drop too deep, while on the right feels a bit like a full-back. The impression was that he would be happier in a two.

And if O’Neill does opt for two wing-backs, he faces a dilemma as to where James McClean would slot into the side as there might not be room for an out and out winger playing alongside the wing-back.

So let’s start with what we do know.

Jeff Hendrick will be on the team sheet – the manager confimed that at the press conference.

Darren Randolph will start in goal and Enda Stevens should be on the left side of the defence, in whichever formation is chosen. The former Shamrock Rovers man has played much of his club career as a straight left-back so either should suit.

Cyrus Christie has been a loyal servant for the manager, yet it beggars belief to think that Doherty doesn’t start.

The manager admitted that the Wolves man is in fine form and surely this is the time to give him the jersey.

The midfield will prove most interesting with Hendrick and Arter almost certain to start. The holding midfield role may go to Shaun Williams on the back of his performance in Poland, while the manager will also want to start Callum O’Dowda and James McClean.

As a result, expect Hendrick to be handed the number ten role, which leaves just one place left for the striker.

Aiden O’Brien is not getting much joy back at Millwall these days in terms of starting games, yet the manager can often overlook such things if he thinks a player can enhance his side.

O’Brien’s fine performance in Poland was capped off with a goal, and that is one commodity that is in real demand for this Ireland manager.

That would leave no starting place for Shane Long or Callum Robinson, who is one of the few form players at the moment within this Ireland squad.

The manager will have something up his sleeve, but this time it has to pay dividends. 

Follow Republic of Ireland v Denmark via our live blog on RTÉ.ie/sport and the News Now App, or listen to national radio commentary on Radio 1's Saturday Sport.