Friday 18 August 2017

Frustrated Irish pay penalty for their own errors

Ireland 1 Austria 1

Jon Walters is clipped by Austrian defender Stefan Lainer but a penalty wasn’t awarded. Photo: Sportsfile
Jon Walters is clipped by Austrian defender Stefan Lainer but a penalty wasn’t awarded. Photo: Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

It was a strange evening in Dublin that ended with the Irish camp crying foul after a disallowed goal in a frantic finish.

But it would have been an injustice if they had taken three points from a performance that was bereft of match-winning quality for long periods.

For the past fortnight, Martin O'Neill had spoken of this game as the be-all and the end-all of this summer gathering. One-all was a fair enough reflection of the story. Combined with an identical outcome in Belgrade between Serbia and Wales, it still leaves Ireland in a healthy position heading into the autumn.

With four games to go, Ireland are joint top with Serbia and four clear of Wales and the Austrians. September's double header away to Georgia and at home to Serbia will be pivotal.

Shane Duffy and Jon Walters challenge Lainer in what was deemed to be a foul. Photo: Sportsfile
Shane Duffy and Jon Walters challenge Lainer in what was deemed to be a foul. Photo: Sportsfile

Austria weren't good enough to take their destiny back into their own hands, but Ireland's inability to expose their brittleness until they were staring defeat in the face was suitably punished with the loss of two points that could prove significant.

After the pre-match declarations stating an intention to start on the front foot, the opposite unfolded. Ireland's caginess gave Austria a confidence-boost. Their manager Marcel Koller hinted as much, saying: "Ireland were playing at home, but we think they were happy with the draw because they kept their distance."

Martin Hinteregger (4) opens the scoring for Austria in the first half. Photo: Reuters
Martin Hinteregger (4) opens the scoring for Austria in the first half. Photo: Reuters

The irony of it all is that while the first half was desperately lacking in guile, composure and a lot of the other things that Wes Hoolahan brings, the route that brought the hosts joy was an improved version of the long ball, with Jon Walters' determination to chase down a hopeful punt leading to the 85th-minute leveller.

Introducing Daryl Murphy as a second striker was a big part of the turnaround, and perhaps backed up the humorous assessment earlier this week from Austrian sub Michael Gregoritsch, who described O'Neill's big men as "man eaters" and "refrigerators". Refrigerators warm up quicker, though.

Ireland were deservedly behind at the break, with O'Neill's decision to go with the same team that started against Uruguay - apart from James McClean replacing Jonny Hayes - simply not working. Unlike the South Americans, Austria were willing to work hard out of possession. Shock inclusion Kevin Long did okay next to Shane Duffy.

Further up the park Jeff Hendrick toiled as a No 10 and Walters was isolated. McClean temporarily lifted the crowd by steaming into Zlatko Junuzovic when he looked a good bet to get hold of the ball anyway and that just about summed proceedings up. It was all brawn and no brain.

Shane Duffy and Austria's Michael Gregoritsch challenge for the ball. Photo: Getty Images
Shane Duffy and Austria's Michael Gregoritsch challenge for the ball. Photo: Getty Images

Austria went ahead with a training-ground move, with David Alaba angling a corner into the penalty area where a step-over was anticipated by centre-half Martin Hinteregger, whose first-time shot found the bottom corner.

He reacted quicker than Stephen Ward, who really struggled before the interval and was replaced in the reshuffle that brought in Murphy, with Robbie Brady reverting to left-full.

The Irish camp were already agitated by Spanish referee David Fernandez Borbalan - decisions went against them in the build-up to Alaba's corner - but their problems began at home.

"Any decisions seemed to go their way. But he wasn't the most contributing factor to us playing poorly," admitted O'Neill, "We can't afford the level of time that it took us to get into the game."

Still, it was Ireland's ability to just about stay on the right side of the law that contributed to a comeback, with Walters and Murphy rattling Austria's back three. The players ahead lost their way and became sloppier in possession, although Alaba occasionally rose above the mediocrity.

Jon Walters celebrates his goal. Photo: Reuters
Jon Walters celebrates his goal. Photo: Reuters

Half-chances stacked up as Hoolahan and Aiden McGeady came in for Harry Arter and Glenn Whelan. Austria's inexperienced wing-back Stefan Lainer became a pivotal figure, hacking a Long header off the line before McClean wasted the rebound.

Justified

The Sliding Doors moment came with six minutes to go when sub Florian Grillitsch was denied by Darren Randolph, who justified the manager's decision to stick with him.

In the next phase of play, Brady capitalised on a Duffy block to send a punt into the clouds. When it came down, Walters was stronger than the limping Aleksandar Dragovic; he shoved him out of the way and dispatched a delicious right-footer.

His instinctive reaction was telling, racing for the ball because Austria were clearly on the ropes.

Grillitsch skied another set-piece towards his own goal and as Walters waited to challenge Lainer, Duffy raced in to barge the ball over the line. His clumsiness perhaps influenced the call. It might have gone in without him.

"It's a goal," said O'Neill, who quipped that every strike in Andy Gray's Everton career would have been disallowed if referees chalked goals off for Duffy's supposed offence.

Walters, a childhood Everton fan, would get the reference. He had another shout for a penalty when Lainer halted his advance, further evidence for the Irish case that the officials robbed them of the win.

When the dust settles, the prosecution must accept their own share of the blame.

Irish Independent

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