Writing in his pre-match notes, Republic of Ireland manager, Martin O’Neill was clear that despite the numerous absentees from the Austrian squad that this match was going to be tough. The manager was also cooling the talk in the build-up to the match that a win in this game could allow the start of talk of booking the flight to Russia. “We have reached the half-way stage in our Group, so there are still a lot of points to play for, as you would expect. It has been a tough road so far and that will remain so until the last qualifying game,” said O’Neill.
Surely even the Irish manager didn’t expect his team to perform so poorly for most of the game against a weakened side. The Boys in Green started with a 4-2-3-1 formation with Jonathan Walters the lone striker. The layout of the team was a head-scratcher and questions will be asked of why O’Neill decided to start with two defending midfielders rather than go out with a more attacking intent.
The visitors, with their depleted side, emphasised an attacking approach lining out with a 4-3-3 formation and hoping to pile on the pressure on the home side. They did just that. The Irish were hopeless for the first half. Despite a better passing accuracy than the Austrians, the Irish just could not move the ball about and did not seem up for the match as a whole. Robbie Brady seemed disinterested and Shane Duffy unable to connect a pass from out of the back.
The home side’s formation choice didn’t last and was switched to a 4-4-2 with McClean joining Walters up front. This gave the Austrian defence a bit of trouble but the Irish passing or the lack thereof, gave little worry to the Austrians and it wasn’t until the last quarter of the game did the Irish turn up the attacking pressure on their visitors. It did pay off with five minutes to go as Walters gave it is all to beat a defender from a Brady long ball and slotted it into the bottom right hand of the goal. The Irish could and probably should have won it from there. Less than two minutes later, Shane Duffy’s head connected with the ball and it ended up in the back of the net. However, it was ruled a foul on an Austrian defender who ended up in the bottom of the net along with the ball. It was big call and the Irish will be frustrated by the decision. There was also another big decision with a potential penalty after it seemed as if Walters was tripped in the box by a defender. It was a soft challenge but it could have easily been ruled as a penalty any other day.
A real question needs to be asked though. After such a big build up to the game and the hope of three important points in the bag, do the Republic of Ireland have a problem with mentality when labeled as favourites? One only has to draw on the memories of the infamous 0-0 draw away to Liechtenstein over 20 years ago. Ireland was ninth in the world at the time and they were expected to stroll to an easy win against the minnows. Yet they left the small Central European nation with a point, something which was a major set back in the qualifiers for Euro ’96 which we ultimately did not qualify for.
However, fans and journalists alike need to look at the whole picture. The season has just ended with many of the players focused on the survival of relegation or promotion pushes. I can appreciate their willingness to focus on club careers. At the end of the day it is, it is the clubs who pay big money to ensure the players perform to the best of their ability week in and week out. However, you would like to see the players cap off their season with a strong performance for their International side especially after such a strong start to the group. Austria was there for the taking even missing defender Andreas Ulmer who decided to get married instead of helping his nation to a possible victory. That was the kind of thing Ireland should have jumped upon and ensured a strong narrative in the group moving towards the latter stages of qualifying.
An old Roy Keane quote came to mind after the Republic’s controversial loss to France in the 2010 World Cup playoff. “France were there for the taking and Ireland didn’t do it. Same old story,” said Keane, then manager of Ipswich Town. “I’d focus on why they didn’t clear it. I’d be more annoyed with my defenders and my goalkeeper than Thierry Henry. How can you let the ball bounce in your six-yard box? How can you let Thierry Henry get goal-side of you? If the ball goes into the six-yard box, where the hell is my goalkeeper?” I wonder if this will be ringing in Keane’s mind watching back on the Austrian goal. A strike from Martin Hinteregger after a ball from a David Alaba corner.
In his post-match comments, O’Neill made light to the fact that the corner was a result of a move that started from an Austrian handball, Dragović the culprit. While almost everyone in the Aviva would agree that it was a handball by the defender. Surely, the Irish should have cleared the ball or have done a better job at marking during an attacking set piece? I am sure the management will, of course, look at this behind closed doors and will analyse the goal in the aftermath of the game but it is a tad egregious to blame the refereeing for the goal, despite the referee having a poor game.
However, there were some standout players in the match for the home side. Both Jonathan Walters and James McClean paced around the pitch looking for the right pass or attempting to get into some space to create a movement. The Stoke City man, in particular, was allowed little opportunity to create much for most of the game, being marked tightly by Bayer Leverkusen’s Aleksandar Dragović. McClean also had a moment to equalise the game with ten minutes remaining but hit the ball first time and striking it high and wide.
Kevin Long also had a fine first start in central defence and he will be hoping to cause a selection headache for his manager when selecting the sides for the next set of games in September. O’Neill was impressed with the former Cork City player’s handling of the pressure of being selected for such an important fixture.
The result will no doubt be welcomed by the Serbians, who kick-off later in evening against Wales, who themselves desperately need a result to keep their World Cup dreams alive ahead of a home fixture against the Austrians in September.
The Irish will now be keeping a close eye on the fixture this evening with O’Neill, Keane and the rest of the Irish management going back to the drawing board in the morning to study what Ireland need to fix ahead of the last four remaining fixtures of this qualifying stage. A little bit of encouragement and belief that this squad can qualify for its first World Cup in 16 years will no doubt help but as the manager suggested in his pre-match notes there a long road ahead with points to be won and lost by all the sides in this group. Hopefully, for Ireland’s sake and those who follow the Boys in Green, there is more won than lost.
REP. OF IRELAND: Randolph, Christie, Long, Duffy, Ward (Murphy 55′), Brady, Whelan (C) (McGeady 77′), Hendrick, Arter (Hoolahan 71′), McClean, Walters
Substitutes: Westwood, Doyle, Pearce, O’Shea, Keogh, O’Kane, Horgan, Hourihane, Hayes
Goals: Walters (85′)
Yellow Cards: Brady (29′), Christie (32′)
Austria: Lindner, Lainer, Dragović, Prödl, Hinteregger, Baumgartlinger, Junuzović (Grillitsch 79′), Alaba, Lazaro, Burgstaller (Harnik 75′), Kainz (Gregoritsch 90′)
Substitutes: Bachmann, Kuster, Wimmer, Laimer, Stangl, Schaub, Klein, Danso, Alar
Goals: Hinteregger (31′)
Referee: David Fernández Borbalan (ESP)