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What state are Austria in heading into tomorrow's World Cup qualifier with Ireland?

After a disastrous Euro 2016 finals, Marcel Koller’s side have had a mixed start to the current campaign.

Soccer WCup 2018 Austria Wales Austria boss Marcel Koller.

Ben Blake reports from Vienna

TOMORROW EVENING SEES Ireland take on Austria at the Ernst-Happel Stadium in Vienna (5pm Irish time).

When the draw for the 2018 World Cup qualifying groups was made in St Petersburg back in July 2015, this fixture would have been viewed by many as the most difficult away trip that the Boys in Green had to face.

Although they had only ever qualified for one European Championships in their history — and that was as co-hosts in 2008 — Austria spectatularly booked their place at Euro 2016 by winning a group also containing Russia, Sweden and Montenegro by an eight-point margin.

Pre-tournament prediction articles regularly featured phrases like “potential surprise package” and “possible dark horses” when referring to Marcel Koller’s side, and they were expected to advance to the knockout stages at the very least.

What transpired was nothing short of a disaster as Austria went down 2-0 to their neighbours Hungary in the opening game before drawing 0-0 with eventual champions Portugal and losing 2-1 to England’s vanquishers Iceland to crash out on one point.

Former Swiss midfielder Koller, who has been in charge since 2011, refused to label the early exit as a failure, suggesting at the time that fans may have had unrealistic hopes.

“Maybe the expectations have been too high,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a personal failure. It’s an experience for me with the team.”

Soccer Euro 2016 Iceland Austria Marko Arnautovic sits dejected on the ground as Austria are sent home early from Euro 2016. Source: Martin Meissner

The perfect way to bounce back from that forgettable appearance in France would be to mount a serious challenge to reach the World Cup finals for the first time since 1998.

And, three games in, it’s been a respectable (but mixed) start.

Having edged out an improving Georgia 2-1 in Tbilisi, the Austrians came back from a goal down on two occasions to hold top seeds Wales 2-2 at home.

It looked like they were about to do something similar in Belgrade last month when Marc Janko equalised just after the hour mark, but Dusan Tadic bagged a 74th-minute winner as Serbia handed them a 3-2 defeat.

That brought their goals conceded so far to six (only Moldova have let in more in Group D with 10) and you feel that Ireland could have some joy on Saturday as they don’t look the most convincing defensively.

In comparison, only five goals were scored on Austria during the entire Euro 2016 qualifying campaign.

Soccer WCup 2018 Serbia Austria The starting line-up that faced Serbia in Belgrade last month. Source: Darko Vojinovic

Personnel-wise, very little has changed in recent times with the exception of Leicester City defender Christian Fuchs, who retired from international football in the summer.

They usually deploy a 4-2-3-1, with Tottenham’s Kevin Wimmer coming in at left-back to replace Fuchs alongside centre-halves Aleksandar Dragovic (Bayer Leverkusen), Martin Hinteregger (Augsburg) and full-back Florian Klein (Stuttgart).

Captain Julian Baumgartlinger of Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich star David Alaba look to control things in midfield, with an attacking trio supporting lone striker Marc Janko — the FC Basel man who has 28 international goals in 59 appearances.

While much of the squad play in the Bundesliga, viewers of the Premier League will know Marko Arnautovic well and the Stoke City man comes into this on-form with three goals in two games for his country.

He’s likely to be used on the left side of the trident and Hannover’s Martin Harnik could come back in on the right after missing the last two matches with a calf injury.

Ireland may be depleted by several notable absentees, but Austira are missing a couple of key men themselves and Koller must decide who will replace his regular number ten Zlatko Junuzovic as the Werder Bremen attacking midfielder isn’t available due to a knee problem.

On top of that, first choice goalkeeper Robert Almer is out for six months with torn cruciate ligaments in his knee, which were sustained playing for Austria Wien against Roma in the Europa League, while Watford defender Sebastian Prodl (abductor) hasn’t travelled either.

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Ben Blake

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