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Austria's Marc Janko (left) and Republic of Ireland's Ciaran Clark battle for the ball.
Austria's Marc Janko (left) and Republic of Ireland's Ciaran Clark battle for the ball.
Image: John Walton

Ciaran Clark the unsung hero of Ireland’s famous win in Austria

The Newcastle defender showed why Martin O’Neill has placed faith in him.
Nov 14th 2016, 3:05 PM 5,479 2

Overview

IRELAND’S HISTORIC VICTORY over Austria on Saturday evening may have been highly accomplished in a sense, but it certainly wasn’t pretty to watch.

It was a victory that was ground out — the mark of a team whose last truly significant win against a top side away from home was the 1-0 defeat of Scotland in 1987.

Like more or less all of Martin O’Neill’s most notable successes as Ireland boss, it was a win based on efficient defensive work rather than exhilarating attack play.

While Ireland’s winner was a moment of class, it was an anomaly in a match in which quality football was generally in short supply.

Source: othman elmouhssini/YouTube

James McClean and Wes Hoolahan, the scorer and creator of the winning goal, have got plenty of praise for their integral part in the win, but really, this is an Ireland team that is very much greater than the sum of its parts.

Ireland’s defence continues to impress

It’s no coincidence that three of the most significant results of O’Neill’s reign — the victories over Germany, Italy and Austria — have all been 1-0 successes.

Since the Derry native took over, it has been a team heavily dependent on a solid defensive base.

The Belgium Euro 2016 game is the one anomaly — it is the only competitive match since O’Neill took charge that Ireland have both failed to score and conceded more than two goals (the Belgians won 3-0 ultimately).

In attack, meanwhile, the team haven’t exactly been prolific. The recent 3-1 defeat over Moldova was the first time the Boys in Green have scored more than twice in a competitive game under O’Neill excluding matches against Gibraltar.

In the Euro 2016 group qualification phase, Ireland scored 19 goals in 10 games – worse than rivals Germany, Poland and Scotland. However, their record of seven goals conceded in 10 games was better than any of their opponents in Group D.

Similarly, in this World Cup qualification campaign, both Wales and Serbia have scored more goals than Ireland, but the group leaders have the best defensive record with only three goals against.

That’s not to say Ireland have looked consistently assured at the back, however. As Shane Duffy was suspended in the opening qualifier against Serbia, Ireland began with a centre-back pairing of Richard Keogh and John O’Shea, while Ciaran Clark was on the bench.

The Boys in Green looked unusually vulnerable at the back in that match, and were ultimately lucky to escape with a 2-2 draw, as the hosts squandered a number of good chances.

Inexperienced centre-backs silence critics

In the three competitive matches since, O’Neill, perhaps with an eye on the future, has opted on the younger centre-back pairing of Ciaran Clark and Shane Duffy.

The duo did reasonably well in the 1-0 over Georgia, though in the subsequent match away to Moldova, Duffy was unconvincing, as his mistake led to the hosts’ equaliser amid a 3-1 win for O’Neill’s side.

Consequently, there were doubts as to whether retaining the inexperienced pair for the Austria match was a wise move, most notably by RTÉ panellists Eamon Dunphy and Liam Brady, who expressed serious reservations about the decision.

But Duffy and Clark in particular silenced their critics with a virtually flawless defensive performance.

Their teammates helped, of course. David Meyler swept up everything in front of the back four with aplomb, Harry Arter was tigerish in the tackle and energetic throughout, while James McClean and Jeff Hendrick relieved some of the pressure by carrying the ball up the pitch on more than a few occasions.

Ireland’s opponents, Austria, had some formidable attackers on the field. Marco Arnautovic is key to the Stoke team and is one of the reasons why Jon Walters has got so little game time of late at club level, while Basel’s Marc Janko boasts an impressive record of 28 goals in 56 appearances at international level and 22-year-old Leipzig forward Marcel Sabitzer has been linked with moves to Liverpool and Man United in the recent past.

In addition, David Alaba is also a formidable threat, as he has shown in the past against Ireland, yet all these talented players were kept relatively quiet thanks to the efforts of Duffy and Clark.

Clark steps up

Clark was arguably Ireland’s standout player, even though he didn’t receive the majority of the plaudits after the match.

In a recent interview with Newstalk’s Off the Ball, former Irish international Richard Dunne explained that it’s often a sign of a good defender when you don’t really notice him during a game, and Clark certainly got through plenty of unseen work during this closely fought contest. It may not have been akin to Dunne’s heroic display in Moscow during that famous match in 2011, but it was just as efficient.

Clark made a number of well-timed tackles such as this one below to stop a series of Austrian attacks…

tackle

The Newcastle defender also senses danger impeccably. On a number of occasions, his positioning was excellent, as he got himself in the right place at the right time.

clarkrightplace

Clark also reads the game extremely well, and though Austria are a very dangerous side on the counter-attack, they were rarely able to exploit this strength to their advantage, with the 26-year-old centre-back making some fine interceptions.

wins5050

The former Aston Villa man also made a key tackle amid Austria’s only clear-cut chance of the first half, as Sabitzer hit the crossbar with a clever chip, before Clark was on hand to make a vital defensive block on the rebound.

interception

Duffy an able partner

Meanwhile, Shane Duffy’s presence and aerial ability meant Ireland were never bullied by Austria’s physically imposing forwards.

winsheader

At times, the pair combined superbly to form an impenetrable defensive wall…

clarkandduffy

Austria struggle to overcome well-organised Ireland

The duo were helped, of course, by a huge effort from their teammates.

Check out the two images below…

lackofoptions

everyplay

In the first image, the Austrian player has very few viable options, other than to play the ball backwards, which was a recurring theme of the game. As the match wore on, the hosts looked increasingly demoralised as they tried in vain to find a way past Ireland’s solid backline.

It was no surprise that the crowd got more anxious and the team’s players became positively desperate by the end of the match, as they abandoned their patient build-up play and instead started playing long balls to their big target men in the box.

The second image emphasises how hard the Irish team worked as a unit. Literally every Irish player is deep inside their half in what is just the 60th minute of the match, with eight Austrian attackers in shot to boot.

Attack the best form of defence

Playing so defensively can be asking for trouble at times, but Ireland did show some bravery. The grit and determination of the midfield to regularly win 50:50 balls made life more difficult for the Austrians. Strong runs forwards with the ball by James McClean (see below) and to a lesser extent Jeff Hendrick also relieved some of the pressure on the Irish backline while exacerbating their opponents’ frustration.

grit

releasespressure

There were inevitably one or two nervy moments late on, such as when Janko eluded Coleman at the back post but failed to direct his header from close range on target.

But for the most part, Austria looked incapable of scoring and as a consequence, Ireland were well worth their famous win.

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