Ireland have the advantage, but can they drive it home?
Austria are missing key players, but Marcel Koller’s side arrive under big pressure to win
The Republic of Ireland squad training on Friday for Sunday’s World Cup qualifier against Austria. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
World Cup Qualifier: Republic of Ireland v Austria, Aviva Stadium, Sunday, 5pm (Live RTÉ2 & Sky Sports 2)
If Martin O’Neill’s men push on to qualify for the World Cup, then last November’s win in Vienna will surely come to be regarded as the springboard for their success. Lose this weekend, though, and it will all feel just a little like the water has been drained from the pool while Ireland were in mid-dive.
The manager might contend that the home draw with Wales felt more like a point gained than two dropped given the problems he had at the time, but it is a little different this time. Austria now arrive under pressure to perform while missing key players and, while the game is certainly no open goal, it is clearly a good time to get them.
The visitors are missing half the team that started when the two sides last met, and while some of manager Marcel Koller’s replacements are capable enough, it is hard to dismiss the notion that they are disadvantaged by having to start a goalkeeper who might, until recently, have been regarded as their fourth choice, or to entirely reshape an attack that will be without Marko Arnautovic, arguably the team’s best player.
Moments of magic
David Alaba might give you an argument on that one, and Irish fans know all about the damage the Bayern Munich midfielder can do on his day. To date in this campaign, though, the 24-year-old has not quite managed to provide the momentum or moments of magic required to get his side successfully through games. Against Moldova, in March, they finally managed to keep a clean sheet but they have yet to reproduce anything like the form that took them so comfortably through Euro2016 qualifying that they were regarded by many as a decent outside bet for the title. Twelve months on, there is a strong sense that if this, Koller’s 50th game in charge, ends in defeat, then it will also be his last.
Ireland, though, rarely make light work of even the most modestly talented sides, and Austria remain a good deal better than that. Much may depend on how their relatively recently adopted 3-4-3 works out for them and whether Guido Burgstaller can convert the chance that will almost inevitably come his way.
Roy Keane spoke yesterday about the importance of Robbie Brady’s dead ball deliveries, but Koller has a couple of set-piece specialists on his hands, including Alaba. Burgstaller, though he has yet to get off the mark in international football, has looked pretty effective around the area this season at club level. The 28-year-old possesses a powerful shot and a knack for close-quarter improvisation built on an ability to finish comfortably enough with either of his feet.
An Irish win would effectively put his side beyond the reach of these particular rivals, but defeat would undo a great deal of what has been achieved so far, and so O’Neill must weigh carefully the extent to which he wants to commit himself from the outset.
There are tight calls to be made in relation to his goalkeeper and central defence, but the most telling ones will be in midfield where, effectively, it would appear only two from Glenn Whelan, Harry Arter and Wes Hoolahan can start.
Hoolahan, one suspects, would be the runaway winner if the matter were put to a popular vote. The 35-year-old has started the last two qualifiers for which he was available, but the unfussy way in which Whelan anchors a midfield makes him a pragmatic option, with Arter having the potential to win possession alongside him then pick out a somewhat more ambitious pass.
Jeff Hendrick’s versatility means that he will fill in wherever the gap is left, and the hope is that he will turn in one of his more imposing performances. There can be quite a gulf between the impact he makes when he is really at the races and when he is settling, it sometimes seems, for being more of a spectator.
Even without Hoolahan, Ireland would expect to have enough about them to cause the Austrians problems at the back, and James McClean may again prove critical to turning those problems into points.
Keane dismisses the suggestion the notion that their respective standing in the Group D table puts Ireland in the position of a home side that has nabbed an away goal in a club competition.
That they are in a preferable place to their opponents just now is undeniable, however. The pressure to win is on Austria; the challenge for Ireland is to do it when they don’t completely need to.
Republic of Ireland: Randolph (West Ham); Christie (Derby County), Duffy (Brighton), O’Shea (Sunderland), Ward (Burnley); Whelan (Stoke City), Arter (Bournemouth); Hendrick (Burnley), Brady (Burnley), McClean (West Brom); Walters (Stoke City).
Austria: Lindner (Eintracht Frankfurt); Dragovic (Bayer Leverkusen), Prodl (Watford), Hinteregger (Augsburg); Lazaro (Red Bull Salzburg), Baumgartlinger (Bayer Leverkusen), Junuzovic (Werder Bremen), Alaba (Bayern Munich); Harnik (Hannover 96), Burgstaller (Schalke 04), Kainz (Werder Bremen).
Referee: David Fernández Borbalán (Spain).