Good night in Vienna would be music to Martin O'Neill's ears
Manager hoping his side can remain unbeaten in group going into 2017
Seamus Coleman at the Ernst Happel Stadium. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
It is one of those strange and slightly inexplicable quirks of sporting history that Ireland actually have a slightly better competitive record against Germany than Austria. It might not be enough to get them bragging in these parts but the history between these two sides inevitably lends at least a little weight to the sense locally that the hosts can beat Martin O’Neill’s side on Saturday evening and kickstart their struggling qualification campaign.
For his part, O’Neill has been anxious to dampen Irish expectations and as he took the stage at the Ernst Happel stadium he tried to put Austria’s recent trials and tribulations into context.
“I think they are a very good side,” he said. “That win in Georgia could prove to be a very big win. With Wales riding high, I don’t think any of us would have been surprised hugely with that draw and losing in Serbia would not be the end of the world. I think they will be there or thereabouts at the end.”
Like Ireland, they have some problems with injuries to experienced campaigners with Zlatko Junuzovic of Werder Bremen and Watford’s Sebastian Prodl ruled out, something viewed by coach Marcel Koller as at least the equal of O’Neill being without Shane Long, James McCarthy and Stephen Ward.
Notionally, Junuzovic, a set-piece specialist, is the more significant loss but some here view the 29-year-old’s injury as something of a mixed blessing given that it paves the way for Schalke’s younger and more exciting Alessandro Schöpf to come in from the start.
Under pressure to spark an improvement in the fortunes of a side that has already conceded more goals in this campaign than it did in the whole of the last one, Koller has suggested there might be some surprises in his team selection but few observers are holding their breath.
The 56-year-old would curry some favour with his critics if he started David Alaba at left-back, where the now-retired Christian Fuchs is being sorely missed. That, though, would severely weaken the team in midfield and undermine the Bayern Munich star’s hopes of picking up where he left off against Ireland three years ago.
Instead, Kevin Wimmer of Spurs seems likely to start on the left side of defence, although the 23-year-old’s inclusion after a month in which he has scored big own goals for both club and country is unlikely to inspire much confidence amongst supporters.
For all the team’s problems, it is expected this 50,000-seat stadium will be full, with the number of travelling fans officially put at 3,200. The locals may not like the way things have gone since Hungary began the process of bursting their bubble at the Euros but they continue to take some encouragement from the fact that none of the performances in their recent run has actually been all that bad.
Koller’s men took just one point from last month’s games against Wales and Serbia, in which they clearly defended poorly, but they also came from behind four times; an indication of the attacking threat they continue to pose, largely from midfield, and an enduring spirit.
It is Ireland, though, who are manifestly in better shape just now and O’Neill will be hoping that the momentum built by a good Euros and the early away results achieved in this campaign can help to deal a likely rival another blow, while sending his side into 2017 in a very strong position.
“Us remaining unbeaten, let’s say over the Christmas period and into March, would naturally give us a boost; there’s no question about that,” he said. “And any point away from home in international football or club football or European football is still considered, even by the very best sides, to be a good result. Our destiny, though, will be decided in 2017.
“This is still a very important game, don’t get me wrong,” he continued. “Our intention is very much to go out and be on the front foot, to be positive and try to go for it.”
The loss of three likely starters has left him with choices to make in key positions but relatively few attractive options, and the biggest question mark hangs over left-back, with the usual move there for Robbie Brady potentially having several knock-on effects.
The most straight-forward solution would be to start Wes Hoolahan again but the manager’s slightly ambivalent assessment of his performance in Chisinau, combined with recent evidence of a return to form for long-time favourite Aiden McGeady, as well as the availability of David McGoldrick, mean it is not a foregone conclusion.
That Ireland will be more positive than they were in 2013 probably is, but Austria have it in them to make it another miserable trip if they can dig deep to assert themselves again and the visitors let them.
To judge by recent Ireland performances, that last “but”, at least, seems highly unlikely.
AUSTRIA: Ozcan (Bayer Leverkusen); Klein (VfB Stuttgart), Dragovic (Bayer Leverkusen), Hinteregger (Augsburg), Wimmer (Tottenham); Baumgartlinger (Bayer Leverkusen), Alaba (Bayern Munich); Sabitzer (RB Leipzig), Schopf (Schalke), Arnautovic (Stoke City); Janko (Basel).
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND: Randolph (West Ham); Coleman (Everton), Duffy (Brighton), Clark (Newcastle United), Brady (Norwich); Hendrick (Burnley), Arter (Bournemouth), Whelan (Stoke City); Walters (Stoke City), Hoolahan (Norwich City), McClean (West Brom).
Referee: S Karasev (Russia).