Addressing Irish prospects of success in a big World Cup qualifier, it’s not often I feel I can make as apparently bold a declaration as the one which follows, writes Liam Brady.
But the fact is that, despite missing players like Seamus Coleman, Shane Long, Ciarán Clark and James McCarthy, it’s my conviction if Ireland play at all well at the Aviva tomorrow, they will not only beat Austria but beat them comfortably.
The visitors come here weakened by a number of high-profile absentees – not least the suspended Marko Arnautovic – and have shown very little in the qualifying group so far to suggest there is any great reason to consider their fortunes are about to dramatically improve.
By contrast, even allowing for our own missing men, Ireland know they already have the beating of the Austrians, following that terrific 1-0 win in Vienna. We are also going into this game joint top of the table and, off the back of a couple of memorable performances at the Euros, are unbeaten in the World Cup campaign so far.
But in order to make the most of the opportunity presented by tomorrow’s game, it’s imperative Martin O’Neill firmly accentuates the positive with his team selection and the players, in turn, justify his faith with a positive, fearless performance.
Going through the probable Irish team, it’s logical to begin between the posts where, at least in the media, the run-up to this match has been marked by much speculation about whether Darren Randolph could be about to lose his place to Keiren Westwood, a debate which appeared to be brought into particularly sharp focus by their contrasting experiences in either half of the final warm-up game against Uruguay.
But that, lest we forget, was a friendly. My own expectation is Martin will stick with Randolph simply because the lad hasn’t let him down in the big competitive games and, indeed, his consistency in goal can be considered one of the reasons we’re in such a good position in this qualifying group. And irrespective of the fact he did have a disappointing end to his season in the Premier League at West Ham – while Westwood excelled throughout with Sheffield Wednesday in the Championship - I think for this game the manager will want, as far as possible, to field personnel who have played together quite a bit.
There is no debate about the fact Cyrus Christie will play right-back. Losing Seamus Coleman, especially in the cruel manner in which we did, was obviously a major blow. But, I must say, I am encouraged by Christie’s positivity on the pitch. The Derby County man can be a little erratic in possession but he’s an exciting player going forward and, as we have seen, even has a useful eye for goal. Unlike Stephen Ward in the left-back berth – who is a trustworthy but more conservative type of full-back – Christie likes to bomb up and down which, tomorrow, would suit what I think the team should be trying to do in terms of really taking the game to Austria from the off.
At centre-half, Shane Duffy should definitely play and I think Martin will put John O’Shea in beside him. I wouldn’t be inclined to read too much into the fact John didn’t get any game time against Uruguay because that could simply be a case of the manager already knowing full well what he is capable of. It’s a defensive pairing I like because you get that blend of O’Shea’s experience and Duffy’s raw power. If not O’Shea then it will be Richard Keogh, who is a similar kind of player in that he can let Duffy go for all the challenges while he (or O’Shea) picks up everything else. For me, the key area of the pitch tomorrow will be in midfield and this is where Martin’s selection will tell a lot. My view is this is a game we should really go for and, to that end, the manager can make a real statement of intent with his starting XI, one that says we’re confident in ourselves and not worried about the opposition.
With that in mind, I don’t think we need the security of Glenn Whelan against Austria. Harry Arter and Jeff Hendrick are good enough defensively for us to do without Glenn and that, of course, would make room for the inclusion of Wes Hoolahan, Robbie Brady and James McClean, with Jon Walters up top. We all know that Glenn Whelan is highly valued by his managers for both club and country but if he is chosen to start tomorrow then it means one of our more attacking players will miss out. And I think that would be a big mistake.
Arter has been a great find for us. As a midfielder, he’s tenacious, willing to accept responsibility to get on the ball and is very capable with his passing in terms of keeping the game going. And I think Hendrick would work well alongside him.
It’s with that kind of front foot attitude – confident but not complacent – we should approach this game because the Austrians are definitely in a fragile state coming to Dublin. Having already beaten them away from home, on a night when I felt their character was really found wanting, we’re now four points ahead of them on the table. It’s like we’ve got them under our foot and it would be almost criminal if we were to let them escape now. Unlike us, I don’t sense the Austrians have a great spirit in their camp. They sometimes come good as a team but, in general, I don’t see evidence their players are as committed to the national cause as ours undoubtedly are.
That’s another reason why we should hold our nerve tomorrow, show belief and confidence in ourselves, and really go for them. And if we do produce the kind of strong performance that sends them home empty-handed, then the result would set us firmly on the road to finishing in the top two places in the group. On that point, I think a draw between the Serbs and the Welsh in Belgrade tomorrow would be the best outcome we could wish for in that game because, if we can collect three points while both of them are dropping two, it would actually put us in a great position to go on and qualify automatically as group winners.
Even being able to say that now reflects great credit on Martin O’Neill. When the draw was made, and given the limited quality at his disposal, it would not have been too fanciful to imagine we might have been in fourth place at this stage. Instead, we’re joint top on 11 points with Serbia after a great campaign to date. But that won’t count for much if we don’t exploit our advantage by putting Austria away tomorrow.
And I believe we will, if Martin puts his faith in Hendrick and Arter as the two central midfield players, and gives full rein to the flair of Brady and Hoolahan and the determination of McClean.
This is the time to take the bull by the horns and really show belief in Ireland’s creative players.
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