Austria 0 Republic of Ireland 1
Ireland: McClean (48')
Man of the Match: James McClean (Republic of Ireland)
A glance at the Group D table offers an idea of the significance of this win for the Republic of Ireland. To put it into context, however, it is worth noting that they last beat Austria, John F Kennedy was the president of the United States. A bogey side were beaten and a 53-year wait was ended.
A victory secured by James McClean was historic, albeit in a lesser way, and gives Ireland a much improved chance of heading to Russia in 2018. They have made a near flawless start to their qualifying campaign, taking 10 points from four games, three of them away, and head into March’s meeting with top seeds Wales in fine shape.
This was a triumph for manager Martin O’Neill, who switched from a midfield diamond to 4-2-3-1 in the first half, moving McClean to the left wing and thus allowing him to score, and for his younger generation.
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They are having to assume responsibility now Robbie Keane’s international career is over and John O’Shea is only a squad player. They were further stripped of pedigree when Glenn Whelan, their most experienced player, limped off after a quarter of the game.
Others stepped up. Harry Arter was a busy presence on his competitive debut. Ciaran Clark and Seamus Coleman may have each made goal-saving interceptions. Robbie Brady posed a menace both from set-pieces and in open play. McClean, who has rarely been prolific, scored a third goal in his last two internationals.
It came when, turning in the centre circle, Wes Hoolahan supplied a penetrative pass for the West Bromwich Albion winger to drill a shot between goalkeeper Ramazan Ozcan’s legs. It was a fine goal to secure a memorable result, which made up for a rather forgettable first half.
Ireland were much more incisive thereafter. Just before the break, Marcel Sabitzer deftly clipped a shot against the bar when he ran on to Marko Arnautovic’s incisive pass. Even then the danger remained for Ireland, with Clark required to make a vital block to stop Marc Janko tapping in Kevin Wimmer’s cut-back.
Arnautovic brought the hint of danger, too, when Coleman made a superb covering challenge on the Stoke winger. Yet the Ireland captain kept his immediate opponent quiet thereafter.
Austria’s night had begun with some mediocre set-pieces from David Alaba and, while the Bayern Munich man later whipped a shot onto the roof of the Irish net, he was epitomised Austria’s struggle to realise their potential.
Manager Marcel Koller was already under pressure after a disastrous Euro 2016 was followed by a slow start to this group that already renders a top-two finish unlikely.
And Ireland could have scored more. When Brady delivered a brilliant, curling cross, Jonathan Walters met it at full stretch but, leaning back, he cleared the bar. When Walters did find the net, heading in Brady’s free kick, he had made his run too early and was adjudged offside.
It illustrated the quality of Brady’s delivery. It was shown again when, from the Norwich man’s corner, Ciaran Clark’s header had to be hacked off his line by Sabitzer. A two-goal lead may have made the closing stages less nervy. Instead, Austria launched an assault as they sought to salvage something. But Marc Janko missed two particularly inviting chances, Ireland defended resolutely and the only blight on their night was the caution that ruled Brady out of the Wales game.
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