Ireland look to continue their quest towards next summer’s World Cup, as the Boys in Green look to maintain their unbeaten record with a win over Austria in Dublin.
It has been a very good qualifying campaign so far for Martin O’Neill’s side as they have collected three wins from five games so far in World Cup qualifying, including a 1-0 win in Austria last November.
That victory in Vienna seven months ago should boost the Boys in Green’s confidence that they can collect another three points against them today and move closer to reaching a first World Cup since 2002.
A scoreless draw against Wales back in March means O’Neill’s men are unbeaten so far on the road to Russia and with tougher tests to come against Serbia and Wales again, a slip-up here could prove costly in finally returning to the biggest stage.
Ireland have not been producing the best displays of football ever but they have a very hard-working team, who make up for the lack of world-class superstars with their heart and determination to get Ireland back to the World Cup finals for the first time in 16 years.
Austria broke Irish hearts in Dublin with a late David Alaba equaliser in March 2013 to all but end Ireland’s hopes of qualifying for the last World Cup in Brazil, but that should only make Ireland more eager to grab the win against them this evening.
O’Neill and assistant Roy Keane will no doubt have some tough decisions to make for the starting line-up ahead of the sixth game in qualifying, but a no brainer should be the inclusion of James McClean, who grabbed the winner against Austria in November.
The Derry man is a player in form in the green jersey with three goals so far this campaign and is quickly becoming a fan favourite after a string of impressive performances for the Boys in Green.
He might shift to the right-wing for the visit of Austria to make way for Burnley’s Robbie Brady to start on the left-wing, as he returns to the starting line-up after missing the Wales game through suspension.
The decision whether to start Wes Hoolahan or not will always cause a debate, but I think the 34-year-old is most likely to start this one on the bench with O’Neill sticking to his preferred three-man midfield.
Jeff Hendrick and Harry Arter are the obvious choices to start in the middle of the park, while Stoke’s Glenn Whelan will probably get the nod ahead of Hull man David Meyler.
Captain Seamus Coleman is most likely to be ruled out of action until last year after suffering a horrific leg break in March’s 0-0 draw against Wales and he will be a huge miss to the Ireland team.
Derby’s Cyrus Christie has got big shoes to fill as he is the most likely replacement for the Everton full-back for the rest of the campaign, but the 24-year-old should put in a decent shift at right-back for the remaining games.
Stephen Ward will start at left-back, while Richard Keogh and Shane Duffy will form a partnership in the heart of the defence with regular Ciaran Clark out injured due to a knee injury.
This defensive line-up on paper does bring up concerns, but hopefully the four defenders came come together and put in a real shirt to deny Austria making too may threats on the Ireland goal.
Their could be a change of personnel between the posts, with Darren Randolph not enjoying the best of form for club West Ham towards the end of last season and was at fault for Uruguay’s goal in a 3-1 win over the South American side last week.
Another choice to start between the posts is Kieran Westwood, who has enjoyed a couple of good seasons with Sheffield Wednesday but O’Neill is expected to keep the faith in Randolph despite his recent woes.
Shane Long’s absence is a massive blow up front after the Southampton striker suffered a broken metatarsal in the Saints’ win against Middlesbrough last month.
Jon Walters will start-up front as the lone striker against Austria, after the 33-year-old was handed the captain’s armband for the rest of the campaign after Coleman’s serious injury.
Walters does tend to be more effective on the wing but O’Neill is limited in his choices for the striker role, but Walters is the best man to start as he always gives a 100% in the green jersey.
Long and Coleman’s injury are a big blow but there is still enough about this possible starting XI to get a result against an Austrian side, who have not enjoyed the best of form as of late.
After a disastrous Euro 2016 campaign for Marcel Koller’s side, they have just two wins from five games and they will be missing some key players ahead of the trip to Dublin.
Stoke’s Marco Arnautovic is suspended, while Schalke midfielder Alessandro Schoepf (knee) and striker Marko Janko (tonsilitis) are a number of players missing for Austria.
Nevertheless, Austria will still bring a real threat in Dublin and one man the Boys in Green will have to keep an eye on is Bayern Munich midfielder David Alaba.
The 24-year-old did not enjoy the best of games in the reverse fixture last November but he is a still a very talented player and could punish Ireland will his long-range drives.
Ireland scored a first ever win in Vienna last year and that game proved that this Austria side is nothing special. With home advantage for the Boys in Green, O’Neill will surely be looking for his side to go for all three points.
Ireland are in a great position mid way through the qualifying campaign and now it is time to get serious. They need to put in much improved performances for the final few games and keep hopes of Russia 2018 alive.
There is not much between these two sides but with fans cheering on the Boys in Green in the Aviva Stadium, I think home advantage will help Ireland grind out a narrow victory against Austria.
Three points against Austria will be a massive boost and will get fans dreaming of next summer’s World Cup, but they will need to kick on and win vital games against Serbia and Wales to avoid a dreaded play-off and finish top of group D.
Prediction: Ireland 1-0 Austria