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Ireland change a winning formula - and almost pay for it

The Boys in Green escaped with a draw against Austria after a dire first-half performance.

Austria's Florian Kainz with Ireland's Harry Arter.
Austria's Florian Kainz with Ireland's Harry Arter.
Image: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

1. O’Neill drops Hoolahan despite Vienna success

MARTIN O’NEILL’S TEAM selection on Sunday left many people surprised on two counts.

No one had been expecting Burnley’s Kevin Long to be selected, given his lack of big-game experience — a factor O’Neill in somewhat contradictory fashion recently cited to explain in-form Cork City striker Sean Maguire’s absence from the squad — though that call was vindicated, as the imposing centre-back looked impressively assured for the biggest game of his career to date.

Yet the decision that worked less effectively was the exclusion of Wes Hoolahan from the team, with many expecting the Dubliner to return to the side after he missed the last qualifier against Wales due to injury.

The Norwich star is by no means perfect, but it seems clear that when he is on the field, there is a conspicuous improvement in Ireland’s composure and confidence on the ball, as was patently evident upon his introduction for the recent friendly matches against Uruguay and Mexico.

What will have aggravated so many fans and pundits about the decision was that by leaving out Hoolahan, O’Neill was actually changing a winning formula.

Think back to the last time the sides met in Vienna, when Ireland produced unquestionably their best performance of the campaign so far.

After a rocky start in which Austria created one or two good chances, the game changed when the injured Glenn Whelan was replaced by David Meyler.

Consequently, Ireland’s play became more controlled and they deservedly won 1-0, playing some technically accomplished football as the Austrians barely threatened.

The midfield and attack that started that game only had one difference to the side that faced Austria yesterday — with Stephen Ward unavailable, Robbie Brady played at left-back, enabling room for Hoolahan in the midfield.

It was strange, given how well Ireland and Hoolahan played that night in Vienna, particularly in the absence of Whelan, that Martin O’Neill would opt to change a winning formula.

By fielding Glenn Whelan, Jeff Hendrick and Harry Arter, the midfield lacked balance, as the Irish team contained three players who all perform fairly similar roles. Hendrick, in particular, looked uncomfortable, as he was asked to play in the Hoolahan role, but could barely influence the game at all.

O’Neill may have felt a pure sitting midfielder was required to protect the defence, but others would point to the away Austria game, as well as two of Ireland’s other best Whelan-less performances of recent times — the 1-0 defeat of Germany and the 1-0 win over Italy — as evidence that such a player is by no means essential.

A risk taker capable of opening up defences such as Hoolahan was badly missed, and Ireland were initially made to pay for their conservative approach to the game, which contrasted starkly with all O’Neill’s talk during the week of needing to start the game “on the front foot”.

In the end, despite an unconvincing display, Ireland probably deserved a point as they grew dominant in the last 20 minutes of the game. Notwithstanding the belated introduction of Hoolahan and the similarly creative Aiden McGeady, it was the other substitute, Daryl Murphy, who was perhaps the key figure that made the difference.

The Austrian defence struggled to cope with the physicality of the Newcastle man as Ireland hoofed countless long balls in his direction, ultimately battering their opponents into submission, and earning a draw which leaves them in as healthy a position in the group as that which they found themselves in before this week’s set of games.

2. Kevin Long shows his potential

Republic of Ireland v Austria - 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifying - Group D - Aviva Stadium Source: Niall Carson

Before completing a move to Burnley a little over seven years ago, Kevin Long could scarcely have dreamed that he would one day be lining out for Ireland in a vital World Cup qualifier.

In fact, even two or three months ago, such a thought would hardly have seemed credible.

Yet after impressing during the recent friendly games, O’Neill sprung a surprise in his starting XI by opting for Long over more experienced defenders in John O’Shea and Richard Keogh.

Since joining the Clarets from Cork City, with whom he played 16 games in the 2009 League of Ireland season, Long has had a torrid time with injuries.

The 26-year-old centre-back impressed during a series of loan spells and appeared 17 times for Burnley in the Championship, before coming on as a substitute in a January 2015 Premier League match against Newcastle. However, he was taken off just 20 minutes later with a cruciate injury, and forced to spend another extended spell on the sidelines.

After further loan moves to Barnsley and Milton Keynes Dons in the 2015-16 campaign and yet more injury setbacks, Long was finally handed a full Premier League debut last month, and went on to feature two more times for Sean Dyche’s side in the 2016-17 campaign.

An assured performance on his competitive debut for Ireland completes a dream end to the season for the player, and if he maintains the consistency that the Corkonian has shown of late, himself and Shane Duffy have the potential to play together at the heart of the Boys in Green’s defence for many years to come.

Furthermore, for any Irish players who suffer long-term and persistent injury problems in future, the former League of Ireland youngster’s perseverance and consequent reward for it must serve as significant inspiration.

3. James McClean’s comments unwise and over the top

James McClean Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Ireland were not happy with the Spanish referee David Fernandez Borbalan after Sunday’s 1-1 draw with Austria.

Martin O’Neill felt his side had a legitimate goal ruled out and a penalty claim unfairly dismissed, while James McClean suggested the hosts were playing against a “12th man”.

But such talk is more than a little unfair on the officials.

For the Jon Walters penalty shout, Aleksandar Dragović clearly got a foot to the ball, while the Shane Duffy disallowed goal was borderline at best, as the Brighton star led with his arm and seemingly impeded the opponent as he headed home.

Indeed, a more fussy referee might have prevented Jon Walters’ vital equaliser from standing, as the Stoke man brushed aside his marker before powerfully striking an unstoppable shot into the corner of the net.

The Ireland boss was at least somewhat measured in his comments, simply saying the referee was “very poor,” yet for McClean to insinuate that the officials deliberately favoured Austria was irresponsible and risks landing the player in hot water with Uefa.

The West Brom winger has a reputation for speaking his mind, and while it is an often admirable and refreshing quality for a footballer, at times — as in this instance — it is merely to his own detriment.

4. Austria left with a mountain to climb

Republic of Ireland v Austria - 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifying - Group D - Aviva Stadium Source: Brian Lawless

Austria boss Marcel Koller was remaining upbeat after his team were left frustrated in Dublin yesterday, emphasising there are still 12 points to be potentially gained from their final matches.

The 1-1 draw leaves the visitors in a perilous situation, however.

With four games to play, they trail Ireland and Serbia by four points, and are thus left with a mountain to climb as Group D approaches its climax.

With many of their most important players missing, a young and largely inexperienced Austrian side actually acquitted themselves relatively well yesterday under the circumstances.

But while they were the superior team for the first half and part of the second, the visitors were ultimately left relieved to claim at least a point after a late rally from the Irish team in the final 20 minutes was not enough to earn the hosts a victory.

Yet should they fail to qualify, it will be earlier inept performances more than Sunday’s game at the Aviva that the Austrians will look back on ruefully.

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