It would have taken a genius to forecast the outcome of Group D in qualifying for the 2018 World Cup Finals to be held in Russia. Wales, Serbia, Georgia, Austria, Moldova and the Republic of Ireland have been battling it out for the one spot that would put them on the plane for the finals. It has been a topsy turvy few months of results and now the pattern is becoming a little clearer. Wales, Serbia and Austria would have expected to battle it out with Martin O' Neill's Irish side, and it is the Irish who have been setting the group on fire.
So as they went into the latest round of matches, Ireland knew if they could get any sort of result in Vienna they would finish off a great international year. Austria are a side that the Irish have not beaten in over fifty years and if they wanted to keep their World Cup challenge on track, they needed a positive result from the fixture. The build up to the game had seen Martin O'Neill and Everton manager Ronald Koeman have a very public spat in the media over an injury to Irish midfielder James McCarthy, with both sides blaming each other. That all had to be put aside as Ireland went into action in the Ernst Happel Stadium last Saturday fortnight.
Going into the game, Martin knew he would be without Long and McCarthy who are regular members of the team. When the team was announced, O'Neill had finally decided to give Wes Hoolohan a run out in a very important away game, it was something the manager had not done before, he was also able to give Harry Arter his first competitive start and with Glen Whelan all set to sit in front of the back four, the game plan was set. The opening minutes of the game must have given O' Neill a lot to worry about as the home side passed the Irish off the park, at times the Irish lads were chasing shadows. It was a night when Ireland had to dig in and put in a good shift and all eleven did. Upfront, Austria put everything through Janko and Irish defender Shane Duffy did a brilliant job to keep his opponent in check. The Irish took a while to get going in the game and it was a shot from James McClean that seemed to turn the tide in the favour of the Irish. The Austrians went to ground on every challenge and referee Sergei Karasev was giving them every free kick that was going. It was ironic so then that in the 48th minute of the game when Wimmer went to ground after a David Meyler challenge the referee waved play on and it led to the Irish winning goal. After Meyler won the ball it was swiftly moved forward to Hoolahan who found McClean who buried the ball under keeper Ozcan's legs. It truly was a magnificent move and McClean finished superbly. When the ball hit the back of the net the travelling Irish fans went delirious. Having taken the lead Martin O' Neill's men kept everything tight and last ditch tackles and flying headers were the order of the day. It was a job well done when the referee blew the final whistle and the Irish team were out on their feet with exhaustion.
The victory for the Irish was their best away result since beating Scotland in Hampden Park in 1987. The whole night had gone so well for the Irish and the World Cup qualification dream is still alive. The other results around the group went in favour for the Irish as well. Wales could only manage a draw at home to Serbia and that was a massive boost for the Irish. Up next week for Ireland is a home game against Wales and if they can beat Chris Coleman,s men they would almost certainly put the Welsh out.
It has been a brilliant year for Ireland at International level and as the year closes they are top of the group. There is a long way to go in qualification but the way the Irish are performing you would not bet against them getting out of this group, but for now we can only enjoy the Austrian result and look forward to the next game when it comes along in March. This win can only do one thing to this bunch of Irish players and that is to give them self belief that they can go all the way to Russia and that is something I would not have said when the draw was made.