How many times have we come across the famous group of death when it comes to qualifying for major tournaments. This campaign has been no different and Group D in the European section is where it is all happening as we enter the final few games. Any slip ups now will be costly for the competing nations and all the hard work that has been done in previous games will be consigned to the bin. In a six team group consisting of Serbia, Wales, Austria, Georgia, Moldova and the Republic of Ireland it has been very tight and the qualifying positions are still up for grabs. Martin O’ Neill and his Irish squad have had a superb campaign and they have grown together as a group of players. Going into last weekends game against Austria in Dublin they sat second in the group, but only behind leaders Serbia on goal difference.
The game against the Austrians was one of the most anticipated to take place in the Aviva Stadium in quite a few years. The general consensus from the media and the supporters was that if Ireland could beat Austria it would basically knock them out of contention. In a week when assistant manager Roy Keane called for the players to put their bodies on the line to get a victory, a lot of the supporters were fancying a win. It is unusual for Ireland to be labelled as favourites but going into this game that is exactly what they were.
The game itself turned out to be a very strange one indeed. Ireland never got to grips with the Austrians in the first half and to be perfectly honest the away team controlled the first forty five minutes. The Irish could not get going and it was incredible how they kept giving away procession.
I watched on as Martin O’Neill lost his temper with most of his team for the sloppy performance he was witnessing, a game his side were favourites to win was falling apart in front of his eyes. All over the pitch the Irish players had simply not turned up, those who had, including Glen Whelan were having to work extra hard to keep the Austrians at bay. A goal for Austria was sure to come the way they were playing and it duly did in the 31st minute when a well worked corner taken by David Alaba was slammed home by Hinteregger. It really was a superb set piece, as dummy runs by Dragovic and Prodl took the Irish defence by surprise leaving Hinteregger room to get his shot away to score. Martin had to be delighted when the half time whistle went and his side were only one nil down as they just had not performed at all and even the crowd were becoming unsettled and starting to turn on the team. I am sure he tore into his team during his half time team talk and it did the trick as right from the restart they got stuck into the Austrians.
From the start of the half they put the Austrians under pressure and the boys in green started to go forward a lot more, which led to a couple of half chances. It was hard to work out whether Ireland had hit the magic button or the Austrians were prepared to sit back and defend their lead, you can not imagine that was the tactic and if it was, they were always going to end up in trouble. They only created one scoring chance in the second half when Florian Grillitsch turned in the box and had a shot which was superbly saved by Irish keeper Darren Randolph. It was a huge turning point in the game and in the 85th minute John Walters chased down a hopeful long ball and he out muscled the Austrian defender to take a shot that flew into the bottom left hand corner of the Austrian net. It was a piece of hard work that John is well known for, the goal turned the whole atmosphere both on the pitch and in the Stadium and as Ireland pushed on again you just felt they could now possibly win it. Moments later Ireland thought they had bagged all three points when Sahne Duffy headed home only for the referee to disallow the goal. It was a very controversial decision but in my opinion the official got it right, after all when you attempt to jump and head a ball it is not always a good idea to lead with your arm. So Martin O’Neill had to settle for a draw and overall it was a fair result, it means Ireland are still unbeaten in the group and who would have thought would have been the case when the draw was made.
In the end the result overall was fair for both the sides and it keeps the group ticking along nicely. Ireland and Serbia are still sitting on top of the group after Wales drew one all away against the Serbians. That was a huge result for the Irish and now we move onto September and the next round of games on the road to qualifying for the World Cup in Russia 2018.