With Austria four points behind joint leaders Serbia and Ireland in Group D, the conventional wisdom has it that nothing less than a victory in Sunday’s game at the Aviva will be enough to resuscitate the visitors’ flagging World Cup qualifying hopes.
Martin O’Neill wouldn’t necessarily disagree with that analysis, but he does have major reservations about what it might seem to imply about the kind of approach Ireland should adopt. In short, while Sunday’s game might not be regarded as a must win for his team, he insists it’s vital that his players treat it as precisely that.
“Look at the mindset of Austria coming here,” he says, animatedly. “They probably never thought they would lose three points to us in the game in Vienna and now, suddenly, they are thinking about coming and having to win the game here. What we don’t want to do is get into a mindset that because they have to win, that we can hit them on the break. We just have to dismiss that.
“If we ended up losing the game on Sunday, is that disastrous? It might not be disastrous, but it’s not good, because you’ve lost a home game and you want to press home the home advantage, if you can.”
To that end, O’Neill is looking for his team to play without inhibition in front of the Lansdowne Road crowd.
“Just be mindful that these players can play a bit too, a bit like the approach to the Uruguay game where we passed it around,” he says, not without pride.
“Sometimes, we over-passed it in certain stages, but it’s no bad thing for players to get a feel for it. The players mixed it up, as well, and we scored some decent goals, so it was a good confidence booster, but that was a friendly. It will be a different game on Sunday.”
That, one suspects, will certainly be the case in midfield, where Austria are unlikely to be quite as respectful of their opposite numbers as were the South Americans last Sunday.
“Strength, boys who can deal with the ball,” is what O’Neill says will be required in the central area. “I think that applies all over the pitch but, in midfield, you don’t want to be dominated in there. It’s important to have a bit of strength in there, physical strength, a bit of composure, if you have it, and someone who can manoeuvre the ball and maybe take it 10, 15, 20 yards when they have a bit of space to do so.
“I think Jeff Hendrick, for instance, can do it, Jeff can adapt. If you look back at the DVD of the game in Vienna, he spent a lot of time defensively on the right-hand side against Austria, particularly in the second half, but he was still trying to push forward at the same time. He can play a central role, which I think he prefers and if you’ve got two holding players, playing in front of them doesn’t present a problem and he can also get back to defend.”
Quite where all that leaves Wes Hoolahan in terms of his chances of starting against Austria is another matter, with Glenn Whelan and Harry Arter the other two midfielders who, at this stage in the build-up, fall into the category of possibles rather than probables.
O’Neill, however, must plan without David McGoldrick. The 29-year-old forward sat out training yesterday due to a knee injury, but the Ipswich Town man left the squad last night.
The severity of the injury wasn’t known when O’Neill spoke to reporters yesterday but the manager admitted that he had other players on standby if required.
“If you’re asking me about bringing in someone at this late stage, obviously Shane Long is not available. We’ve got Daryl [Murphy] and we’ve got Jon [Walters] at this moment, playing in that pivotal front role, if that’s the case. Then we have people working around them. I’ll have a look and see.”
Asked what result he would prefer in Sunday’s other significant game in Group D — the meeting of Serbia and Wales — O’Neill says he feels he must postpone his verdict until after Ireland’s game which, kicking off at 5pm, will be done and dusted before the 7.45pm (Irish time) start in Belgrade.
“Let us try to concentrate on winning the game,” he said. “If things went askew, I don’t know what you are looking at and if things went well, you might have a different mindset.”
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