Ireland have made an unbeaten start to their World Cup qualifying campaign, but the Boys in Green face their toughest challenge yet with a trip to Austria.
Ireland picked up six points from six in their two World Cup qualifiers in October but their performances were less than impressive with Seamus Coleman scoring the only goal in a 1-0 win over Georgia, before a 3-1 victory in Moldova.
Austria come into the game with a win, a draw and a loss but Marcel Koller’s side will prove a tough test for Ireland. The Boys in Green will need to put in a much better performance, but they are missing a couple of key players for the trip to Vienna.
Everton midfielder James McCarthy failed to make the final squad through injury as the row between the Irish management and Everton boss Ronald Koeman rolls on, while star striker Shane Long is also missing due to a hamstring injury.
Dundalk duo Andy Boyle and Daryl Horgan have been called up to the Ireland camp for the first time but I expect Martin O’Neill to stick with the faithful for Ireland’s toughest World Cup qualifier thus far.
Ireland’s defence came in for much criticism in October’s qualifiers as Shane Duffy and Ciaran Clark paired up against both Georgia and Moldova, so Sunderland’s John O’Shea and Derby man Richard Keogh will be pushing for a start.
The central partnership will be on of the key areas that O’Neill must get right and with concerns over O’Shea’s fitness, recalling the 35-year-old would be a risky move. I think he will stick with Duffy and Clark as I don’t think Keogh would make any difference.
Seamus Coleman is the automatic choice at right-back as is Darren Randolph in goal and with Burnley’s Stephen Ward missing through a hamstring injury, the only option O’Neill has is to place Robbie Brady in the left-back position.
Bournemouth’s Harry Arter will be looking to earn his first appearance in a Republic of Ireland shirt and with the form the 26-year-old has been in this season, it is a no brainer to include Arter in the starting line-up in my books.
O’Neill does prefer a 4-3-3 system which would most likely see Jeff Hendrick and Glenn Whelan partner Arter in a three-man midfield, meaning there is no room for Norwich star Wes Hoolahan.
I would prefer to see Hoolahan in the team rather than Whelan and I am sure I am not the only one to favour this selection, but it would come to no surprise that O’Neill would leave out one of Ireland’s most creative players yet again.
James McClean will hope he is fit to start on the left-wing after overcoming a back injury he sustained in training this week, while on the right side of the pitch Bristol City winger Callum O’Dowda could make his first start for Ireland.
Normally, Stoke’s Jonathan Walters would start on the right but with Long and Daryl Murphy out injured, there is limited choice for O’Neill in attack with Adam Rooney, Kevin Doyle or David McGoldrick the other options for the gaffer.
This will also be a big decision for O’Neill to decide which man can give the Austrian defence something to think about but I think he will give the nod to Walters despite not featuring regularly for Stoke this season.
Long’s absence will probably be most felt but Ireland still have a few decent players to grab a positive result in Austria and will need players like Coleman, Brady and Hendrick to bring their best form to Vienna.
It was not the greatest of summers for Austria after a disastrous Euro 2016 campaign but Marcel Koller’s side will prove a very tough test for Ireland, who will need to keep their eye on star man David Alaba.
It was Alaba’s late goal that broke Irish hearts in September 2013 as the Bayern Munich man rescued a 2-2 draw for Austria that ended the Boys in Green’s hopes of reaching the 2014 World Cup.
Marko Arnautovic will also be a threat with the Stoke winger scoring both of his country’s goals in a 2-2 draw with Wales last month while towering striker Marko Janko will also look to give the Irish defence some headaches.
However, Koller’s side are missing Werder Bremen attacking midfielder Zlatko Junuzovic who would normally pull the strings in the number ten role, but even in his absence Ireland will need to be very aware of Austria’s attacking strength.
Ireland will be keen to exploit a questionable Austrian defence but then again, Austria would probably think the same about Ireland. Spurs defender Kevin Wimmer – who scored an own goal against Arsenal – and Aleksandar Dragovic can be liabilities.
Ireland were not at all convincing in their victories against Georgia and Moldova and if the Boys in Green keep going with this long ball system, Austria will without a doubt outplay Ireland on the ball and cruise to victory.
Ireland have players who can pass the ball such as Harry Arter and Wes Hoolahan and while the latter’s inclusion in the team hangs in the balance, Arter is a no brainer. Austria are no Germany or Spain and Ireland can definitely come away with a point.
I expect Austria to dominate the game and while at loss would not be the end of the world, it certainly would be a big blow in Ireland’s qualifying hopes. Ireland are good enough to take all three points, but a draw would be a good result to keep momentum on Ireland’s side.
Prediction: Austria 1-1 Ireland