Saturday 21 April 2018

O'Neill: 'We have to try to be on the front foot for as often as possible'

Jonathan Walters tries to evade the attention of Austrian danger man David Alaba during the 2-2 draw between the teams in 2013. Photo: Brian Lawless
Jonathan Walters tries to evade the attention of Austrian danger man David Alaba during the 2-2 draw between the teams in 2013. Photo: Brian Lawless

Miguel Delaney

After the typical talk of respect for Austria, and playing down the importance of any single result, Martin O'Neill eventually let slip his true feelings on next Saturday's fixture.

"They need to get something out of the game to stay in it."

That is the defining aspect of the match in Vienna: its potential decisiveness. O'Neill may have personnel problems - especially with the injury to Shane Long, among a few players in the spine of his side - but they pale next to Austria's issues. They haven't yet recovered from a hugely deflating Euro 2016, when a highly-fancied team were one of the eight to go out in the first round, and have since drawn with Wales at home and lost to Serbia away. On the balance of how you need this abnormally tight group to go in order to qualify, that is probably three points dropped. They can't afford another slip-up, especially not ahead of the long wait for the next game in March.

It is probably understandable, then, that there has already been talk of their history against Ireland to try and change the mood. Because, of 10 previous meetings between the sides, the Austrians have won five and drawn three, just losing two. That gives them a better win percentage against Ireland than any other central European side. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to describe Austria as Ireland's bogey side, and it is flavoured by the features of some of those games.

The Irish matches against them have brought the end of two managerial regimes, two 6-0 defeats, the infamy of 'Harry's challenge', and - crucially - no wins since 1963.

Ireland's first meeting against Austria came in May 1952 in the Praterstadion, and featured the man who lent the stadium its current name, while also setting a tone. The brilliant Ernst Happel, who went on to win two European Cups as a manager with Feyenoord and Hamburg, anchored the Austrian midfield in that crushing first 6-0 win. By the time Ireland enter the modern Ernst-Happel Stadion on Saturday, though, it won't exactly be with O'Neill's warnings about history ringing in their ears. He was justifiably dismissive of such talk on Wednesday.

"I wouldn't concern myself with that but they're currently a decent side."

So are O'Neill's, however, and this is the thing. Ireland go into a game against Austria in their strongest position since that last win, the 3-2 in Dublin in 1963. They are unbeaten with seven points.

That was not the case in 2013 or 1995, when the Giovanni Trapattoni and Jack Charlton regimes were in their death throes. The 'Harry's challenge' affair of June 1995 summed up so much of the indiscipline of the Irish side of that time, as many players ate full fish-and-chips meals - dessert optional - as part of a PR gig half an hour before the final training session on the eve of the game.

Their legs "went" in a 3-1 defeat, and Charlton was soon gone too. For the second 6-0 in 1971, then new manager Liam Tuohy had to field a team of League of Ireland players because the match came a day after a full English league programme.

O'Neill will be missing one of his best players from the Premier League for this game, with Long out, and that is one of a few selection decisions complicated by player fitness. Although John O'Shea is expected back, there are doubts over Stephen Ward and James McCarthy.

O'Neill must then decide on his defence, his midfield make-up and his striker. Not many of those involve obvious replacements, although the nature of the players available will make it obvious from the line-up whether the manager wants to seize this game or settle for the status-quo-maintaining draw these matches usually involve.

He needs to find some way of keeping a cutting edge and attacking aggression without Long, but also minimising the threat of David Alaba. The Bayern Munich star struck late goals in both of Ireland's last meetings, the 2-2 draw and 1-0 away defeat of 2013, with the latter ending Trapattoni's time in charge.

The tone of the match, however, is likely to be dictated by Austrian desperation.

While a draw would still be solid for Ireland, that would not be the case for Marcel Koller's team. An away win, in fact, could put Austria in a very dangerous situation and leave O'Neill's side as favourites.

The manager wouldn't quite go that far, though.

"It gives you a chance," O'Neill said. "I think the Aviva games will be decisive. We've 10 matches to do something, it's not as if we've got a 38-game season. We've got to be right. And even when you're not really right, you've got to hang in."

Ireland have certainly made a virtue of the latter, even if it has led to the performance-versus-points debate that dominated the aftermath of the wins over Georgia and Moldova. O'Neill used media criticism to motivate his players then, but still acknowledged some of the issues on Wednesday.

"We'll have to be really strong at the back, we'll have to take out defensive lapses like the one we had against Moldova, that type of thing. We'll have to be proactive, try and be on front foot for as often as possible."

Whether that is an indication he plans to play Wes Hoolahan and take the game to Austria ,thereby killing so much of that recent debate, remains to be seen. A win, however, would go a long way to killing off Austria.

Ireland have a huge chance to change the record - and take charge of the group.

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