Martin O’Neill’s Ireland travel to Vienna on Saturday to take on Austria in a vital World Cup qualifier at the Ernst-Happel-Stadion.
Ireland are nicely placed at joint-top in the group with Serbia. Having steadily improved the team’s performances since his appointment, Saturday’s team selection will be a key indicator of O’Neill’s belief in this group of players.
Austria really flattered to deceive at the Euros in the summer. They have started this group in similarly mediocre fashion picking up a win, a draw and a loss in three matches so far.
Bayern Munich’s David Alaba is their talisman, and he’s broken Irish hearts before. Stoke’s Marco Arnautovic is another dangerous attacker but, as a unit, they lack cohesion.
However, Ireland are going into this game missing some key men. Shane Long, James McCarthy and Stephen Ward are all absent through injury. They have been ever-presents in O’Neill’s side over the last few matches and had they been fit they would all be certain to start.
The team will no doubt miss Long’s devastating pace but Jonathan Walters is a more than willing deputy in the number nine position. He’s never let us down in the past nor will he on Saturday. With Ward out also, the most obvious choice to replace him is Robbie Brady.
The Norwich City man has produced some excellent displays in midfield over the last twelve months but with Ward missing it would be a major surprise if Brady was not selected at left-back.
The rest of the back four will likely consist of Seamus Coleman at right-back with Shane Duffy and Ciaran Clark at centre-back, or possibly Richard Keogh.
Whoever O’Neill selects to take McCarthy’s place will be the key tactical decision however, as it will indicate how the team is going to play.
Discounting Brady there are twelve midfielders in the squad. Given the importance of the game and O’Neill’s form for selecting players, one would have to say Stephen Gleeson, Callum O’Dowda, Jonathan Hayes and Eunan O’Kane will not be considered for a starting role. James McClean will start on the left. That leaves four spots up for grabs.
Jeff Hendrick and Glenn Whelan are nailed on to start also. Hendrick has been a revelation over the last year and the manager trusts Whelan to do a job for him, especially in a tricky away game like this.
This leaves two spots remaining. Harry Arter is one of the Premier League’s most in-form players at the moment, so he has to start. In truth O’Neill has no real alternative there.
On the right wing, if the manager goes with a 4-2-3-1 formation or as part of a diamond if McClean is played closest to Walters, Wes Hoolahan, David Meyler, Aiden McGeady and Daryl Horgan are the players O’Neill has left to choose from.
Hoolahan makes Ireland tick when he plays, but O’Neill has publicly questioned his ability to have an impact in tight games so it’s unlikely he’ll start. Meyler will add grit, not a whole lot else. McGeady is a favourite of the manager but he has let us down so often before. Horgan is a genuinely dangerous option to get at the Austrian back four, but selecting him would be an uncharacteristically bold statement of intent.
If it’s Hoolahan or Horgan on Saturday Ireland can really put a dent in Austria’s hopes of qualification and grab the group by the balls in the process.
If it’s McGeady or Meyler expect a dogged evening and hope for a point.
Stephen Vaughan, Pundit Arena