As the Republic of Ireland face in to their FIFA World Cup qualifier in Vienna this coming Saturday, Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane have a serious selection headache on their hands. The squad has been ravaged by injury, with a number of vital players set to miss the Austria clash. Stephen Ward, James McCarthy and Shane Long (all of whom started the most recent qualifier in Moldova) have all been ruled out through injury. Daryl Murphy , who scored that crucial equaliser in Belgrade, has also been declared unfit, which combined with Long’s absence leaves Ireland awfully short on options up front. To further compound the misery, James McLean is now also a doubt having suffered a strain in his back during West Brom’s weekend victory over Leicester City. All of this means that O’Neill has a considerably under-strength squad from which to choose from.
Vienna has not been a happy hunting ground for Ireland in the past. In fact, we have failed to win there on all four our previous visits. Our last meeting was in 2013 during the most recent World Cup qualifying campaign. A David Alaba goal condemned Ireland to a 1-0 defeat, and was Giovanni Trapattoni final game in charge. Alaba, the Bayern Munich defender, will again be expected to have a major influence on the game this time around. While he usually lines out a left-back for his club, he is deployed in a more advanced role for his country, often to devastating effect. While Alaba is most certainly the danger man, Austria do boast other quality players.
Those who follow the Premier League will be familiar with Marco Arnautovic, the powerful Stoke City winger who can breath-taking at times, if not also wildly inconsistent. Marc Janko, the FC Basel striker, will likely start the game up front. He is a player with a commanding aerial presence, who has notched a impressive 28 goals in his 59 international appearances thus far. The threat that this Austria team poses should not be taken lightly. After all, this is a team that picked up 28 points from a possible 30 in qualifying for European 2016, in a group featuring nothing Russia and Sweden.
However, since the conclusion of that qualifying campaign, their form has nose dived. After entering European 2016 as many people’s ‘dark horses’ to win the tournament, they failed to register a win in a group featuring Portugal, Iceland and Hungary. Their start to this campaign has also been unimpressive, registering only four points from their opening three games, losing to Serbia away while only drawing to Wales at home. In fact, a defeat this coming Saturday would likely rule them out of contention for an automatic qualifying place from the group.
With this in mind, there may not be a better time to face the Austrians. Ireland themselves enter the game in a strong position in the group, having picked up seven points in their first three games. They are currently joint top, level on points with Serbia. While their displays have not been the most convincing, the fact that they have managed to pick up points while not being at their best will be of great encouragement to O’Neill and his staff. While there are a number of injuries to contend with, we also have a number of players who enter the game in great form for their clubs.
Harry Arter, who is set to finally make his competitive debut for his country, has been in fantastic form for Bournemouth so far this season, even leading for some across the Irish Sea calling for his inclusion in the England squad. His presence will be a welcome sight for O’Neill, as Arter has the ability to take the game by the scruff of the neck and set the tempo for the rest of the team. Ciaran Clark has been a rock at the back for Newcastle as they have dominated the Championship under Rafael Benítez, while Shane Duffy continues to perform well for second-placed Brighton. While Shane Long’s pace will be missed up front, Jonathan Walters is an able deputy and his ability to hold up the ball could prove to be vital, especially if Ireland find themselves under mounting pressure from the Austrians.
It will not be an easy task in Vienna this Saturday. They often say that an animal is at its most dangerous when wounded, and this is certainly the case with this Austrian side. However, Ireland enter the game knowing that they do have the ability to perform on the big occasion. Martin O’Neill will have his side well organised and will hope to stifle the creative forces of Alaba and Arnautovic. While we would obviously hope that we could come away with a victory, a draw would be a satisfactory result. As we have seen from past results, Vienna is a tough place to visit, and a point is certainly not something to be sniffed at. It would allow us to maintain our positive start to the group, while also retaining the gap between ourselves and Austria. It would also keep them out of the picture for an automatic qualifying place, at least for the time being. If we can manage a draw, it would put Ireland in a strong position ahead of the massive game against Wales in the Aviva on March 24th.