Friday 22 September 2017

'Different animal' but same approach can take Ireland big step closer to Russia

Keane:
Keane: "You’re never defined by friendly matches." Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Remember that summer in Dublin? In recent Irish football history, it's better to forget them.

When Ireland play meaningful games at home in June, it tends not to go to plan.

The easy reference point here, and a topical one given Austria are in town tomorrow, is the 1995 humbling to Toni Polster and Co that was preceded by a boisterous training camp and the infamous decision to undergo Harry Ramsden's Fish and Chips Challenge.

There are other examples too. Israel's visit 2005, when a two-goal lead was thrown away, which really came back to haunt the 2006 World Cup tilt. Scotland in 2015, when a half-time advantage was also sacrificed, leaving a terrible feeling of anti-climax and fears over the direction of the Euros campaign.

It all worked out in the end, of course, and Martin O'Neill likes to bring that up from time to time.

What has been satisfying about his reign is that it has tackled historical failures that are dredged up in the lengthy run-up to games of significance.

There was the inability to win big games at home, which was put to bed by the Germany and Bosnia matches, with the former also dealing with a long stretch without registering a victory over a top seed.

Last November, Ireland scored their most significant away win against a rival since another Scottish date in 1987, thus ending the belief that Vienna was a graveyard for visiting Irish sides.

Some of these trends are of little relevance, of course, simply providing a hook for conversation as big games loom. The shorter-term history is important, though.

Ahead of tomorrow evening, Ireland can take confidence from the fact they have it in them to make the Aviva an unwelcoming place. Bosnia is the template.

And, more pertinently, they have recent experience of defeating the opposition. Roy Keane was asked yesterday what Ireland could take from the memory of Vienna. "That we can beat them, I suppose," was the matter of fact reply.

Dampen

He couldn't avoid the straightforward response, yet the purpose of the assistant manager's press briefing appeared to be an attempt to dampen the optimism stemming from tales of Austrian woe.

The favourites' tag does not always sit comfortably on Irish shoulders and Keane was determined to tackle any perception that Austria are a beleaguered outfit that are there to be beaten.

Perhaps he was trying to send that message to his own dressing-room, in case they have noted the positivity of the discourse generated by a purposeful display against Uruguay.

"You're never defined by friendly matches," said Keane, who was also asked about the attractive football that was a feature of spells of that match. "This is a different animal, different pressures, different emotions.

"It's alright saying you had some lovely moments (v Uruguay) but you need to do that on Sunday and also find a way to win, whether it's a set-piece or someone producing a bit of quality.

"Uruguay… the whole feel to the game would be a lot different. We're not here for friendly matches.

"They (Austria) have a good record against us," he continued, an example of the folks on the other side of the microphones using historical records to suit an argument,

"And if I was in their camp, I'd be looking forward to playing Ireland. I think they would be enjoying that people are writing them off.

"If you watch the last match, they should have got a result against us. The guy (Marc Janko) missed a chance with the last kick of the game to score.

"So I keep repeating myself, but we cannot be under any illusions that we don't have to be at our best."

Janko is one of the many Austrian absentees this time, with Marko Arnautovic by far the biggest loss. Issues over their goalkeeping situation and a switch to three at the back have added to doubts about the quality of the second seeds.

Keane stressed that the unproven players will be hungry to make their own point, yet his bottom line is that Ireland cannot afford be too complacent.

And management will be conscious that an approach to this game that allows the opponents to settle into a rhythm would be a mistake. O'Neill hinted as much earlier in the week when he spoke about the need to be positive.

The manager's team selection will be pivotal in this regard. Harry Arter looks to have played himself into the side. In Vienna, he starred next to early sub David Meyler, with Wes Hoolahan further ahead.

Jeff Hendrick was selected on the right on that occasion but, last Sunday, a half-time switch where Glenn Whelan made way - it was a first-half setback for Whelan in Vienna that brought Meyler in - led to Hendrick and Arter teaming up effectively with Hoolahan ahead.

That would be a bold move, and it's not inconceivable that O'Neill would go that way, with Robbie Brady and James McClean out wide and Jon Walters operating through the middle as lone striker. Walters gave Austria plenty of problems in the first meeting.

Defensively, O'Neill must pick between John O'Shea and Richard Keogh as a partner for Shane Duffy. O'Shea did not figure against Uruguay, but Keane says there is no worries about his wellbeing.

Question marks continue to hang over the goalkeeping slot with Darren Randolph under pressure from Keiren Westwood.

"Martin has got a few options," said Keane. "And it's a nice problem. Trust, me, he is an experienced manager and he won't be losing any sleep."

"He will speak to (goalkeeping coach) Seamus McDonagh, who is brilliant with them, and whoever starts won't let us down."

When the cameras were rolling, Keane cranked up the fighting talk. Seamus Coleman's visit to camp brought discussion down a slightly unusual road.

"People have done a lot more for their country than break their legs," Keane said. "They've died for their country. All we're asking is that they put their bodies on the line to try and win a game."

With controlled aggression and the selection of players that can expose Austrian flaws, a precious victory is entirely possible.

Verdict: Ireland 2 Austria 1

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