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Ireland presented with a golden opportunity to kill off one of their World Cup qualifying rivals

Martin O’Neill’s side can take Austria out of the running for a spot at next year’s finals by claiming victory this evening.

Jon Walters shoots during the win in Vienna.
Jon Walters shoots during the win in Vienna.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

1. Opportunity knocks for Ireland

AFTER REACHING THE midway point on the road to Russia in good shape, Ireland embark on the latter stages of the journey — starting at the Aviva Stadium this evening (5pm).

Joint-top of Group D on 11 points and unbeaten in their first five matches, it would be hard to pick fault with the job done by Martin O’Neill and his team thus far.

Granted, there’s still a long way to go but, as it stands, the Boys in Green are looking well-placed to achieve qualification for their first World Cup finals since 2002.

In terms of quality, there’s very little between the group’s top four teams but Ireland have a golden opportunity to effectively make it a three-horse race for two slots when they take on Austria later today.

After a disappointing Euro 2016, Marcel Koller’s side have stuttered their way through the campaign and now know that failure to win could leave them with a gap too big to bridge.

It’s a rare position that Ireland find themselves in, but you get the sense that Martin O’Neill smells blood as he has called for his players to play on the front-foot and take the game to their opponents.

With Serbia and Wales also meeting tonight, an Irish victory could potentially leave them sitting pretty in the automatic qualification place depending on the other result.

2. Austria are on the ropes

By now, you’ll probably have read all about the problems Ireland’s opponents are facing at the moment.

For a start, they are missing a rake of players – including their first-choice goalkeeper and two top scorers in this campaign. Then there is the reported divisions in the camp and the fact that their manager is unlikely to see out the year in the job if results down start to improve.

It’s all a far cry from 12 months ago when Austria were being tipped in some quarters as dark horses to reach the latter knockout rounds of Euro 2016.

Up until the famous victory in Vienna last November, Ireland’s record in meetings between the nations was poor but that monkey is off their back thanks to James McClean’s memorable strike.

Even without captain Seamus Colelman, Shane Long and James McCarthy, they are favourites to win this time around too. That said, it won’t come easy and this team will be well aware that a performance containing similarly impressive levels of discipline, hard work and desire will be needed once again.

3. Selection dilemmas

Going on past experience, Martin O’Neill’s teams tend to be difficult to call but, in saying that, there are a number of bankers on the team sheet.

The Ireland boss confirmed that Cyrus Christie will deputise for the injured Coleman at right-back, and he should be joined by Shane Duffy, Richard Keogh and Stephen Ward in a four-man defence.

After sitting out training with a slight knee problem earlier in the week, Jon Walters took his place alongside O’Neill at yesterday’s pre-match press conference and declared himself “raring to go”.

Walters has often been used on the right-hand side of midfield but the likelihood is he will be deployed as the lone striker.

The goalkeeper’s position is an interesting one. Randolph has been generally solid for Ireland but a couple of recent mistakes added to the fact he has lost his place at West Ham appears to open the door for Keiren Westwood — widely-regarded as the best and most in-form goalkeeper in the Championship.

O’Neill refused to be drawn on the debate and it would be a big call to switch his number one, but the Derryman has shown often enough that he can be ruthless when he needs to be.

4. Will Arter get the nod?

Harry Arter Will Harry Arter get the nod? Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Which leaves us with the midfield. The increasingly-influential James McClean and Robbie Brady are favourites to occupy the wings with the latter possibly being used on the right.

Wes Hoolahan is still our most creative outlet when he is played as the number 10, and should start, then it looks to be two from Harry Arter, Jeff Hendrick and Glenn Whelan. Arter’s displays in Vienna and against Uruguay last week have proved how valuable an asset the Bournemouth man can be to the team — both with and without possession.

After enjoying his best nights in a green shirt in France last summer, Hendrick has failed to reach similar heights since then and more is expected from him. Whelan is a fine servant and a player managers tend to love for the work he gets through at the base of the midfield but, at 33, could his best days be behind him?

O’Neill has been loyal to both Hendrick and Whelan in the past so it will be intriguing to see who he goes with when the team is named 90 minutes before kick-off.

5. Home record bodes well

As I wrote the other day, O’Neill and his backroom staff have built up an impressive record in competitive matches at home.

Ireland are unbeaten in all eight outings — with wins over Germany, Georgia (2), Bosnia & Herzegovina and Gibraltar as well as draws against Scotland, Poland and Wales.

Going to the Aviva Stadium for an evening of football may be far from an exhilarating affair that has you on the edge of your seat for 90 minutes, but this group of players have learned to grind out results in the three-and-half years that the manager has been in charge.

Many a self-deprecating Irish fan may be feeling a little uneasy about how well things are going right now but we might have to start getting used to it if the fine results continue later on today.

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