Jonathan Walters rescues Ireland in the nick of time
Shane Duffy denied late winner in frantic end to World Cup qualifier against Austria
Jonathan Walters celebrates scoring his goal late on in the World Cup qualifier between the Republic of Ireland and Austria at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters/Livepic
Republic of Ireland 1 Austria 1
All square but still advantage Ireland. It is difficult to decide quite how to view a contest in which Ireland’s late equaliser made it feel a little like a victory, but the goal that was disallowed after that reinforced the impression that Martin O’Neill’s men might well have won it.
Austria, though, came and drew a game that, by their own admission, they needed to win. Given the quality of their goal and the couple of counterattacks that almost yielded a second over the course of the closing stages, this was, you would have to conclude, a decent result for the hosts, who remain four points clear of Marcel Koller’s side and firmly in the mix for at least a top two finish.
Clearly, it could have been worse for O’Neill and his men. Having conceded before the interval and taken quite a while to find their attacking stride, they were hugely improved in the second half against a side that looked more than happy to sit back then try to catch them on the break.
For all the talk of Ireland’s improved passing game or how Wes Hoolahan might helping them impose it, their 86th-minute equaliser was straight off the Jack Charlton chalkboard. Shane Duffy won possession inside his own box before feeding it to Robbie Brady, whose hoofed ball downfield gave Jon Walters something to battle for. He started as second favourite to Aleksandar Dragovic in the race that followed but unsettled the defender with a nudge of the shoulder then stole in ahead of him to take possession and coolly place the ball far beyond the reach of the helpless Heinz Linder.
O’Neill’s pursuit of a result had been just as relentless with the manager repeatedly stepping in to reshape a team that went from 4-2-3-1 to 4-3-3 and then 4-1-3-2. If there is a downside, it is the sense that passion rather than possession football remains our strong suit, but neither the Irish fans nor the Austrians will ultimately have come away with too many complaints.
The visitors might have lost it late on when Florian Grillitch’s clearance left Stefan Lainer having to wait to head clear as Shane Duffy bore down on him, but the Derryman forced his opponent - as well as the ball - into the net and the Spanish referee had no hesitation in calling a halt to the Irish celebrations.
Kevin Long, though, went close too as Ireland piled forward at every opportunity while Walters, who had a decent claim for a penalty, and James McClean passed up another chance or two. Some day Ireland might actually start to play the sort of passing game we all say we want and though we might well prosper, you have to wonder whether it could ever be quite as exciting as the very particular sight of an Irish side chasing a goal they desperately want and need with utter abandon.
Long’s inclusion had been the one real surprise in O’Neill’s team selection with the manager resisting the temptation to change goalkeepers and getting rewarded for his faith in Darren Randolph late on when the goalkeeper twice made critical interventions.
For the best part of the evening, though, the Irish had to chase things with the concession of a soft goal from a well worked set piece putting them on the back foot after an opening period in which the team’s attacking players had clearly struggled.
Walters worked relentlessly to make something happen but, as we have seen so often before, looked isolated when the ball was launched towards him throughout the first half. Even at that, he couldn’t quite control it when it mattered most and strayed a foot or two offside on the one occasion when Jeff Hendrick looked set to send him clear.
Still, Ireland showed definite signs of aspiring to something more through those early exchanges with Harry Arter clearly keen to weigh his options, such as they generally were, before releasing the ball and Cyrus Christie impressing out on the right where he showed both a willingness to throw himself into a defensive battle and, at the other end, go past an opponent with a view to whipping in a cross.
It seemed, for all the shortcomings, to have quite a bit of potential until the Austrians scored with a routine move that involved David Alaba driving his corner low towards the edge of the area. Sebastian Prodl and Dragovic both stepped over it before Martin Hinteregger arrived in space to power it past Randolph from from 15 yards out.
The home side reacted by cranking up the effort and intensity levels to 11, but most of the composure that had been there in the opening stages was lost in the process. Players reverted to opting for the long ball sooner and while the approach yielded a fairly steady succession of set pieces, Brady blasted his most promising free into the wall while Hendrick badly misjudged the weight of his cross from a corner after an initial exchange had given ample opportunity to do much better.
The hosts, though, were a different proposition after the break. For 10 minutes or so, they tried much the same approach but Brady, McClean and Walters were all now beginning to click when in the higher gears.
Ireland’s best chance early in the half fell to Long who, not for the first time, wasn’t quick enough in opting for a shot when he had, it seemed, been hoping for a header but as the half progressed Ireland began to exert genuine pressure and the team’s chances of scoring a goal started to amount to much more than whether a defender, most likely Duffy, could make a quality connection with a high ball into the box.
A high ball towards it is still what saved O’Neill and co. Some things, many in fact, never seem to change.
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND: Randolph (West Ham); Christie (Derby County), Duffy (Brighton), Long (Burnley), Ward (Burnley); Whelan (Stoke City), Arter (Bournemouth); Hendrick (Burnley), Brady (Burnley), McClean (West Brom); Walters (Stoke City).
Subs: Murphy (Newcastle United) for Ward (56 mins), Hoolahan (Norwich City) for Arter (72 mins), McGeady (Everton) for Whelan (77 mins)
AUSTRIA: Lindner (Eintracht Frankfurt); Lainer (Red Bull Salzburg), Dragovic (Bayer Leverkusen), Prodl (Watford), Hinterregger (Augsburg); Alaba (Bayern Munich), Baumgartlinger (Bayer Leverkusen), Junuzovic (Werder Bremen); Lazaro (Red Bull Salzburg), Burgstaller (Schalke 04), Kainz (Werder Bremen).
Subs: Harnik (Hannover 96) for Burgstaller (75 mins), Grillitsch (Werder Bremen) for Junuzovic (79 mins), Gregoritsch (Hamburger SV) for Kainz (90 mins).
Referee: David Fernández Borbalán (Spain).