A throwback this and not just because it was, in the main, an atavistic reversion to the old long ball game from Ireland, an all too familiar one-dimensional approach which looked like it was never going to pay off – until it did.
World Cup Qualifying — Group D
Rep of Ireland 1 Walters 85, Austria 1 Hinteregger 31
Five minutes from the end of normal time, with Ireland desperately chasing the game, Jon Walters did what he’d been doing all match, chasing after apparently hopeless lost causes.
But after another boomer the length of the pitch, this time from Robbie Brady, Walters cutely shunted Aleksandar Dragovic aside to give himself some space and then, in a moment of sheer quality which was as out of keeping with the build-up as it was so very welcome, speared a superb shot to the corner of the net.
Having suffered through a pretty torrid first-half, during which Austria had not only taken the lead but, even threatened to open Ireland up at will, the crowd reaction to Walters’ goal had a defiant ‘you’ll never beat the Irish feel’ about it.
And with the stadium now in continuous full-throated roar, the breathless grandstand finish which followed - during which Shane Duffy had a goal controversially disallowed and Walters appeared to be impeded in the box as he attempted to get another shot away - might even have yielded Ireland an unlikely victory.
It wasn’t to be. But while Martin O’Neill fumed at the decisions which didn’t go Ireland’s way, in the cold light of day he might review the action from yesterday and conclude that, on balance, his team had done pretty well to even be in with a chance of winning a game which, for so long, they had been in serious danger of losing.
Not for the first time, O’Neill had thrown a curveball with his starting line-up, putting his faith in Kevin Long by opting to give the Corkman his competitive debut alongside Shane Duffy in the heart of an Irish defence which, with Cyrus Christie coming in as expected for Seamus Coleman at right-back, meant Stephen Ward on the left side had close to twice the total of caps as his three fellow defenders combined.
There had been much talk in the home camp in the run-up to the game about the importance of getting on the front foot from the off, but it was Austria who struck first although, fortunately for Darren Randolph who fumbled before gathering, Zlatko Junuzovic shot tamely at the keeper after the visitors had mounted a typically snappy and incisive break.
They continued to peg the home side back with smart build-up play, David Alaba always looking dangerous between the lines as he sought to pick out a penetrating pass.
Ireland, by shocking contrast, were almost entirely reduced to heaving long balls forward which asked too much of even that most willing of operators, Jon Walters, who was frequently found isolated among white shirts at the other end of the pitch.
For the first 15 minutes, Randolph probably saw more of the ball at his feet than either Robbie Brady or Jeff Hendrick while, out on the left flank James McClean cut an increasingly frustrated figure as he was starved of chances to run at his opposite number.
In the usual fashion, he took his angst out on the opposition with a couple of bone- crunching tackles which at least had the merit of giving the unhappy Aviva faithful something to cheer about.
And then, 30 minutes in, and just as the Irish were showing tentative signs of coming into it, only to be let down by a lack of quality with the final ball, Austria took a thoroughly deserved lead.
It came from a well-worked corner-kick routine, Alaba drilling it towards the edge of the area where two successive Austrian dummies opened up the space for Martin Hintergger – already impressive with his rampaging bursts from left-back - to curve a first-time strike out of reach of the diving Randolph and inside far post.
That remained the state of play at the break, raising the question as to what Martin O’Neill could do to lift his badly struggling players. The introduction of Wes Hoolahan was, as ever, the popular choice.
We also wondered if, having found themselves so drastically demoted from pre-match favourites to playing second-fiddle on the pitch, the home side might find their new backs-against-the-wall status better suited to the Irish mentality.
But it didn’t look that way in the opening minutes of the second-half as, in quick succession, Alaba shot wide after a great one-two with Florian Kainz and then Junuzovic had another goalbound effort blocked by Duffy.
The introduction of Daryl Murphy for Stephen Ward, which saw Robbie Brady revert to left-back, finally offered support to Walters up front but it was the belated arrival off the bench of Hoolahan in the 70th minute which was greeted by the crowd as if as if salvation was finally at hand.
And the little man threatened to have an immediate effect on the scoreboard, as his teasing cross from the right deflected goalwards off Stefan Lainer but, fortunately for the defender, goalkeeper Heinz Lindner was perfectly placed to spare his blushes.
Kevin Long, who did well after getting his big call from the manager, almost made a good day for himself even better in the 79th minute, but this time it was Lainer’s turn to do the right thing by clearing the defender’s header off the line.
But though Ireland were now applying all the pressure, the Austrian threat had not entirely disappeared, and Randolph entirely vindicated O’Neill’s faith in him by pulling off a crucial save to deny substitute Florian Grillitsch before, barely a minute later, Walters pounced with his magnificent game-saving intervention.
With the stadium now in total uproar, Austria just about hanging on and Ireland throwing everything at them in search of the win, there was still time for Duffy’s close-range header to be disallowed for a foul which the Spanish referee saw as leading with the arm but which an apoplectic Martin O’Neill regarded as good, old- fashioned stuff and, in his opinion, entirely legitimate.
There were also howls from the home support when Walters got clipped in the box as he was preparing to pull the trigger again but, all the late drama notwithstanding, at the final whistle it was hard to arrive at any conclusion other than, despite dropping home points for the second game in succession, Ireland managed to get themselves out of jail.
Randolph; Christie, Duffy, Long, Ward (Murphy 55); Whelan (McGeady 76), Arter (Hoolahan); Brady, Hendrick, McClean; Walters
Lindner; Lainer, Dragovic, Prodl, Hintregger; Baugartlinger, Januzovic (Grillitsch 78), Alaba; Lazaro, Kainz (Gregoritsch 89), Burgstaller (Harnik 74)
David Fernandez Borbalan (Spain).
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