By Liam Mackey
Martin O’Neill has echoed Roy Keane’s war cry on the eve of Ireland’s World Cup qualifier against Austria.
Earlier this week the assistant manager called for players to be willing to put their bodies on the line as they prepare to “go into battle” against the Austrians at the Aviva Stadium tomorrow.
“I understand what he was saying,” said O’Neill at today’s pre-match press conference. “He went to war every single time he played for about 14 years.
"I think what he means is that you have to have a real strong mentality and be ready to battle through games. Qualification games are exactly that: tough games to play in, really hard work. We have to be ready for that hard work for a start and then match their ability.”
O’Neill is demanding that his players be on the front foot from the first whistle.
“We have really got to start strongly in the game. We’re at home and I think we have to take the game to Austria and really be positive from the start. Austria are capable of causing us all sorts of problems so I think we have to be on the front foot if we can, but also be aware of their dangerous players.”
One Austrian dangerman who, fortunately for Ireland, won’t be in a position to cause the home side problems is Marko Arnautovic, who – adding to a lengthy list of injury absentees for the visitors - misses the game through suspension.
Commenting on the absence of his Stoke City team mate, Jon Walters said today: “He was a little bit inconsistent this year but when he’s on it, he’s a really difficult player to play against. Yeah, he’s a big miss for them but they’ve still got a very strong team and sometimes it’s the players that are sitting in the background, a bit of the unknown, that can be very dangerous.
“We saw ourselves against Wales where we were depleted in numbers but gave a good performance. But, yeah, Marko’s a big miss because he can create something out of nothing.”
Despite Ireland finding themselves joint-top with Serbia, and four clear of Austria at this half-way stage of the World Cup qualifying campaign, Waters dismissed the idea that the finals in Russia are already within sight for O’Neill’s team.
“No. We know if win tomorrow the gap will be bigger but we’ve been on the other end of that situation where we came back in the last qualifying campaign to upset the odds So we know that even if we get a win tomorrow there’s some very difficult games coming up like Wales away and Serbia here.
“We have to play everyone again and there are teams up there all fighting for it. We’ll reassess come tomorrow evening but there’s a long way to go yet before the World Cup.”
As is usual, Martin O’Neill said that he would only reveal his team selection after he has told the players tomorrow, though he did confirm what has long since obvious, that Cyrus Christie will start in place of injured skipper Seamus Coleman at right-back..
However, it can also be taken for granted that Walters, who along with everyone else in the squad is fit to play, will take his place in the starting line-up.
“Naturally I’m delighted we have Jon,” said O’Neill. “He was a talisman for us in the Euro qualifiers but unfortunately picked up an injury in training before the finals started. He played little bits here and there but overall he was not properly fit so it’s nice to have him on board because he’s been terrific since I’ve come in and even before then.
"To borrow one of Roy’s phrases, he’s a great warrior for us but more than that, his great ability helped us immensely.”
On selection decisions he might be considering in goal, defence and/or midfield, O’Neill said: “During the course of my time here, I’ve had some big calls to make in a lot of positions, in personnel and tactical things, and I don’t think it will be a great deal different tomorrow. We’ve an important game to play and I want the lads to be as mentally tuned in as physically right as they can be.”
Summing up what’s at stake at the Aviva tomorrow, the manager said: “There’s obviously a big three points for both countries. Now we’ve crossed the halfway stage - tomorrow is the start of second half of tournament. So we just have to grab those points. We have to do our utmost and if we’ve done our utmost there’s not much more I can ask.”