An opportunity lost, a lack of goals and poor set pieces - what we learned from Ireland's draw with Austria
Here are five things we learned from Ireland's 1-1 draw with Austria at the Aviva Stadium tonight.
For all the talk throughout the week, particularly from the management team, that Ireland would make a positive start and be on the front foot from the first whistle, it was Austria who made the better start to the game. Austria arguably had more to lose and that seemed to reflect in their first-half urgency.
Ireland looked nervy and uncertain in the early stages and although they had a brief and promising ten-minute period halfway through the first-half, they failed to reach the impressive standards set in last weekend’s 3-1 win over Uruguay.
Typical of their luck, or lack if it, was two attempts from the normally reliable and full-flowing James McClean to run at the Austrian defence, only to trip over the ball. It was just one of those days.
After what one can assume was a frank exchange of views from the manager at half-time, Ireland were certainly more offensive in the second-half and O’Neill’s substitutions helped lift the crowd and his team.
He pushed McClean upfront immediately after the re-start, then sent on Daryl Murphy for Stephen Ward before the hour and introduced Wes Hoolahan on 70 minutes, to a loud ovation. Aiden McGeady’s late introduction was another masterstroke which kept the visitors on the back foot.
With so little time with his players, any minutes on the training ground are precious for Martin O’Neill so it is no wonder that a large proportion of the sessions involve work on the all-important set pieces. But while Austria’s fine opening goal was a move straight from the training ground, Ireland were found wanting in the same department. Robbie Brady’s first two attempts from the 25-yard mark both failed to trouble the visitors - one free-kick smashing straight into the wall and the other miles over it and out of play.
The Burnley winger fared little better from corner-kicks, although his 40th minute in-swinger almost presented Kevin Long with his first Ireland goal. The central defender was unable to get any power on his header which bounced in the penalty area before it was cleared.
Jeff Hendrick and Harry Arter also made a complete hash of a corner just after Austria’s excellent goal. The pair dithered with a short corner, which was presumably part of some rehearsed routine, before Hendrick sent his cross sailing over a crowded penalty area.
Compare that to Martin Hinteregger’s superb 31st minute strike which rocked the Aviva. David Alaba took the ball from Zlatko Junukovic and his corner looked under-hit and appeared to be heading out of the area and away from goal, Sebastian Prodl and Aleksandar Dragovic both jumped over the ball and it fell at the feet of Austria’s Number 4 who lost marker Stephen Ward and hammered it past Darren Randolph.
Brady at least made a better fist of his first set piece of the second-half, a teasing long free-kick from the left which Long should have buried. The centre-back was also denied a certain goal by Stefan Lainer 11 minutes from time when the Austrian full-back cleared his glancing header off the line from a Brady corner.
Three places were under particular scrutiny and manager Martin O’Neill managed to pull off a couple of surprises, at the same time as sticking loyally with his goalkeeper.
Darren Randolph’s dodgy end to the season for club and country had not gone unnoticed but the West Ham keeper kept his place as Number One, leaving Keiren Westwood on the bench. Randolph could do little about the goal and he made one brilliant late save to deny Florian Grillitsch.
There was also a decision to make over who to partner Shane Duffy in central defence and this time O’Neill went for the rookie rather than experience. So Kevin Long, just two games into his international career after making his debut against Mexico, was thrown into his first competitive game. And Burnley defender Long looked much more assured than Duffy, whose passing was simply dreadful from start to finish.
And finally, O’Neill had to decide how to line up his midfield, and who would be doing so. Wes Hoolahan was the unlucky man to miss out, although he has the added bonus of being the most dangerous impact sub of all the Ireland squad. And sure enough, when he appeared in the 70th minute to replace Arter, the Norwich playmaker got one of the biggest cheers of the game.
The under-valued Glenn Whelan, winning his 81st cap, was the man most thought would be left out on such an important evening, with goals required. He not only started, but was named as captain.
O’Neill, Roy Keane and the players now have nearly three long months to mull over this opportunity lost. A victory at the Aviva would have given them a seven-point lead over Austria, just after the halfway stage of qualifying, and surely buried their chances of qualification.
Ireland have four games remaining in September and October, starting with the trip to Tbilisi on September 2, three days before leaders Serbia are the visitors to the Aviva Stadium.
The final double-header involves a home fixture against winless Moldova before the all-important visit to Cardiff, which could now decide who finishes in the runners-up play-off spot.
There are of course plenty of points still up for grabs but Austria, who have Serbia to play at home, as well as visit Wales, remain on the fringes of the qualifying pack.
Goals, goals, no goals
They may have one of the best defensive records in the whole of the European groupings, but Ireland’s lack of goals could be their undoing on the road to Russia.
The lowest scorers in Group D going into this game, Ireland still have only eight goals from their six matches and have only scored two goals from their three home matches. That has to improve to beat Serbia when the group resumes in September.
The loss of Shane Long through injury was always going to be a blow for Ireland and so it proved. The industrious Jon Walters led the line well but had only scraps to feed from throughout.
The best chance of the game fell to James McClean, top scorer in qualifiers and scorer of the winner in Vienna. But he blazed over from close range after Lainer had kept out Long’s header.
But write off Walters at your peril. The Stoke man ran onto a long Randolph punt and buried emphatically it past Heinz Lindner, erupting an almighty Lansdowne roar. Incredibly, it may have been his 14th Ireland goal in 49 games but it was his first goal of this campaign.