Ireland sit proudly atop Group D in the European World Cup qualifiers tonight, after a superb performance against Austria in Vienna. Take a bow, goal-scorer James McClean...
There was an air of jubilation in Irish football tonight as Martin O’Neill’s Ireland side registered an historic 1-0 victory over Austria in Ernst Happel Stadion, Vienna this evening. The win puts Ireland at the head of the Group D European World Cup qualifying table, with ten points from four games.
Early in tonight's game, Austria were dominant and created a number of chances. But the Irish defence was resolute, with goalkeeper Darren Randolph in particular putting in a massive shift and Ciaran Clarke making one crucial block.
There was heartache for Stoke City midfielder Glen Whelan, who was injured after 24 minutes, and replaced by David Meyler of Hull City. Nonetheless, Ireland gradually began to get a toe-hold in the game and created one of the best chances of the first half just before the break, when Wes Hoolahan and Robbie Brady combined down the left. Brady whipped the ball across the box and Jonathan Walters got on the end of it, only to see his effort hit the bar and go over.
If the first half had been less than pretty, Ireland started the second half in a more positive frame of mind. It was as if they had seen enough of Austria to know that they could afford to have a real go. And they did. Just three minutes into the second half, David Meyler robbed Kevin Wimmer, deep in the Irish half. Wimmer went to ground theatrically. The referee quite correctly ignored him. Meyer found Wes Hoolahan, loitering in midfield, with a clever ball. Hoolahan made up for any earlier uncertainty with a superbly weighted pass into the outside left channel for James McClean, who had charged into the picture from the Irish half.
The West Bromich player powered forward. There was a split second when it seemed that he might have gone too wide, but exhaling deeply, he smacked his shot with real venom. It went between the legs of Austrian keeper Ramazan Ozcan and nestled sweetly in the back of the net.
The level of the Irish performance throughout the second half was greatly improved. There was an extent to which you might say that they rode their luck close to the end, with Austrian striker Marc Janko spurning two opportunities by failing to get on target from close range. But overall Ireland were the better team. They defended well and looked like they wanted it more than the opposition.
The result puts Ireland at the head of the group D table with a whopping ten points from four games – only one of which has been at home. Serbia – with whom Ireland have already secured an away draw – are in second place on eight points, following their 1-1 draw with Wales in Cardiff – Newcastle striker Aleksandar Mitrovic equalising Gareth Bale’s opening goal for Wales. Meanwhile, Austria’s hopes of progressing are slim at best now, with just four points from four games.
Clearly, Ireland go into the international winter break in good heart. Mission accomplished.
Darren Randolph 8
One of Ireland’s stars tonight. He was calm and confident under pressure, while his positioning made things look easy. Better distribution and he would start to rank up there with the best Irish keepers ever.
Seamus Coleman 8
He is a real leader, to the extent that you always know just how much playing for Ireland means to him. Took charge superbly in a number of difficult situations. Didn’t take too many risks by charging forward – there’ll be lots of opportunities for him to do that back in Dublin.
Shane Duffy 7
For the most part, he was solid and dependable. Great in the air, though the Russian referee didn’t especially like his style and gave a number of frees against him. A real threat in the opposition box too.
Ciaran Clark 7
Ciaran Clark also did well. He looks like a far more confident performer, now that he is playing in a winning side under Rafael Benitez at Newcastle. Also an Irish threat at set-pieces, he’ll score goals during the campaign.
Robbie Brady 8
More of an attacking threat tonight than Seamus Coleman: his ball across the box just before the interval deserved a goal. Delivered a number of other fine free kicks, one of which Jon Walters converted – only to see it disallowed for offside, Tackled well and generally looked like a quality player.
David Meyler 8
Came on for Glen Whelan after 24 minutes and did very well. Showed plenty of composure, not least when he started the move that led to James McClean’s goal. This is the kind of performance that gives Martin O’Neill additional options.
Harry Arter 7
His competitive debut puts the ridiculous speculation that he might shift his allegiance to England to bed, once and for all. This wasn’t his most composed performance, but he tackled and harried well and gradually imposed himself on the game. A solid performance – and he will get better.
Jeff Hendrick 7
The game passed Jeff Hendrick by for 45 minutes, more or less. But in the second half he was transformed and played with strength, guile and skill. Has established himself as one of the bulwarks of the team.
Wes Hoolahan 7
It wasn’t Wes’ best night. And yet, there were moments of wonderful invention and magic, which underline why we are always more likely to score when he is on the pitch. His ball for James McClean, leading to Ireland's goal, was brilliant, fully justifying the decision to play him.
James McClean 9
There is no one who loves playing for Ireland more than the West Brom wide-man. He played in spite of a back problem – and gave his all. A constant menace, he got his just reward when he sprinted onto Wes Hoolahan’s pass in the 48th minute. The finish was emphatic – and McClean lapped up the applause of Irish fans. He was more than entitled to.
Jonathan Walters 7
He hasn’t been playing that much football for Stoke this year and there was a worry that he might struggle for fitness. Not a bit of it. He ran hard, got on the end of things, held it up well and generally did the work of three players. Almost got his name on the scoresheet – but no matter. It was a fine performance from a player who defines heart.
Aiden McGeady replaced James McClean for the last five minutes and did well. David McGoldrick came on for Wes Hoolahan after 78 minutes, but never really got into the swing of things.
He got it right. Indeed, he is beginning to grow into the job, putting a lot more trust in his players. For 45 minutes tonight, it looked like that might have been misplaced. But the second half was different, and Ireland deserved their victory – and the resulting three points. Top of the table after four games? Who'd have thunk it? The management team of Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane deserve to take a bow...
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