McClean strike secures historic win
Austria 0 Republic of Ireland 1
A goal of rare quality, for a rare away win on a night of glorious firsts. Thanks to the rampaging James McClean's ruthlessly clean finish, Ireland claimed a first ever win in Austria, after Martin O'Neill had finally given a first run-out to the populist midfield pairing of Wes Hoolahan and Harry Arter. Most importantly, it all meant that they claimed, at least temporarily, first place in the Group D.
Ireland now go into the long winter break looking fully confident and on course for Russia 2018, in what would be a second successive qualification.
It is possible to be optimistic, especially after a strike and performance like that. It wasn't just the quality of the goal that was so uncommon and thereby encouraging for Ireland. It was how they built on that goal, abrasively getting into Austria.
They seized their chance, finally winning away to a proper group rival for the first time since Scotland 1987.
Austria were there for the taking, it must be said, and that could even be seen in their otherwise positive start. They looked like they wanted to immediately force themselves about of their recent bad form, going at the Irish defence with speed.
It created a flurry of early chances and ominous flashpoints. After just 44 seconds, Marko Arnautovic had swept a dangerous ball across the back, before Ciaran Clark made a brilliant block on the same player as he ran through on goal from a clumsy Wes Hoolahan loss of possession.
Injuries had meant that Martin O'Neill had little choice but to finally play the popular midfield pairing of Hoolahan and Arter, but the first half wouldn't exactly have convinced the manager to do it more often.
Making his first competitive appearance, Arter initially looked a little nervous, playing a series of sloppy passes that you don't see him do for Bournemouth. That meant Hoolahan could barely get into the game and he was often muscled out of it, lending merit to O'Neill's reluctance to play him in away games like this.
All of that was to change, of course, but after O'Neill was forced into a change in midfield too. With Glenn Whelan having to go off injured after 24 minutes, David Meyler was brought on and Arter went into the centre.
Even before then, however, Austria were beginning to lose their impetus - and the ball. Their best chance of that spell was a clever turn-and-shot in the box from Marc Janko but, unable to score, they were also unable to keep up their early pace.
It was as if they were too consciously trying to get an early goal to restore their own confidence, but gradually realised the bad form they're in. By the 30th minute, their two best players and leaders - Bayern Munich's David Alaba and Bayer Leverkusen's Julian Baumgartlinger - had hit the ball out of play trying to play fairly elementary passes.
That unease seemed to creep through their team, creating more and more opportunities for Ireland. The lively McClean tested how far he could push things on 12 minutes, trying a long shot that was dangerously deflected, before a typically well-struck Brady free-kick saw Shane Duffy go close.
The errors and changes meant the game was beginning to open up, and that actually produced a few minutes of genuinely quality. First, Seamus Coleman produced a block worthy of Paul McGrath, sliding in to prevent Arnautovic powering through on goal.
Austria did finally get in on Darren Randolph's goal on 39 minutes, when Marcel Sabitzer also got in one on one with the goalkeeper. The number nine deftly lifted it over Randolph with a bit of curl, for what would have been a divine finish, only for the ball to bounce back off the bar. Kevin Wimmer's ball back in was cleared, and Ireland then hit the frame of the goal themselves in what was probably the move of the match.
To initiate it, Hoolahan offered the kind of moment that shows why it is worth putting up with his lack of contribution off the ball. He did something with it that very few players can. The Norwich City attacker inventively flicked on for Brady, who even improved on that with a supremely crafted and curved pass that just begged to be hit.
Jon Walters could only hit the bar - but Hoolahan and McClean were about to raise the bar.
Austria looked to again start the half at high-speed, but Ireland were this time ready to take advantage.
Meyler did well to win the ball out on the right, before feeding Hoolahan in the centre. With Austria fully stretched, and McClean at full pelt, just the right ball was required. Ireland had the right player on it. Hoolahan played a perfect through ball, before McClean hit a brilliant shot through the goalkeeper's legs.
It was a goal of rare quality.
It did, however, set up a very common challenge for Ireland. Having gone ahead, would they sit back and eventually concede - or would they look to build on it?
Walters immediately gave the right response, actually putting the ball into the net with a header from a set-piece only for the strike to be ruled out for offside, and Duffy again went close from a similar situation.
Once Austria brought on Louis Schaub, they found their rhythm again, and the midfielder stung Randolph's hands with a fine shot from distance. Driven by desperation, they began to attack with more purpose.
That brought the best out of players like Arter, who began to challenge with real authority, but also brought the one big negative: a booking for Robbie Brady that means he will be suspended for what is looking like a decisive home match with Wales in March.
Austria should have been reduced to ten men when Baumgartlinger went in abrasively on Hoolahan, but the referee didn't give him a second yellow.It didn't matter, and nor did the hapless Marc Janko's late chances. It was to be a night of firsts.
Sunday Indo Sport