Martin O’Neill’s Republic of Ireland take on Austria on Saturday evening with a number of injury concerns already hitting the squad.
Shane Long’s absence from the preliminary 35-man panel showed the absolute dearth of quality Ireland now have in the striker role, while the subsequent withdrawals of Stephen Ward, James McCarthy, Cyrus Christie and Stephen Quinn from the final squad have left the group looking somewhat depleted.
Further injury concerns to John O’Shea and James McClean have exacerbated the situation, and left O’Neill with a massive selection headache for Saturday. McClean will probably be risked but the same surely cannot be said of O’Shea, whose presence in the starting lineup wasn’t guaranteed in any event.
With those injuries in mind, here’s how O’Neill should line his side up in Vienna (assuming he doesn’t adopt the 3-4-3 which is all the rage right now):
An easy one to start off with. Randolph has been undisputed Ireland number one since coming on as a substitute in that famous win against Germany. There is no reason to suggest that will change now, nor is there much of a cause for it.
Right-Back: Seamus Coleman
Centre-Back: Ciaran Clark
Centre-Back: Shane Duffy
Left-Back: Robbie Brady
Right-back, again, is an easy decision with Seamus Coleman nailing that spot down some time ago. In fact, the captain’s armband seems to have brought the Everton defender up to another level, as shown by the storming run for his goal against Georgia.
The centre-back pairing of Clark and Duffy is yet to justify O’Neill’s trust in it, but the manager patently sees it as the way forward for the long-term. Both will probably start, especially with O’Shea not being fully fit, but that being said it would not be a huge surprise to see Richard Keogh called upon ahead of either.
At left-back, with Stephen Ward injured and a shocking lack of alternatives, Robbie Brady will be needed at left-back for Ireland again. There is a slightly possibility that Clark could play there, but O’Neill may consider that too much of a risk.
Defensive Midfielder: Glenn Whelan
Centre Midfield: Harry Arter
Centre Midfield: Jeff Hendrick
McCarthy’s absence will leave a large hole in the Irish midfield, but it is one that will surely see Harry Arter get his chance in a competitive fixture. The stars have aligned for the Bournemouth midfielder to start (not least because there’s a striking lack of alternatives in the squad).
However, Wes Hoolahan is unlikely to start. That’s not to say he definitely won’t, but nothing in O’Neill’s history with this team suggests that this is the type of game he’ll deploy the Norwich veteran in (from the beginning at least). Hendrick is assured of his place in the midfield, while Glenn Whelan is the very embodiment of a player for a tight away fixture.
Right Winger: Aiden McGeady
Left Winger: James McClean
Aiden McGeady was once an O’Neill favourite, but has slipped so far in the the reckoning that there is a genuine debate to be had over whether he should start even with so many options missing. His return to action for Preston last weekend was with a fine performance from the on-loan Everton winger, and although Walters would be many peoples’ choice for the right-hand position in Vienna, he’s needed further up front.
McClean, however, is nailed-on provided he proves his fitness. His return to training would suggest this is the case, with O’Neill hoping the West Brom winger can carry on his good form from the Moldova match.
If this was a home game against Moldova, for example, then O’Neill might have felt adventurous and placed McClean in a false nine up front. As it is expected to be tight and physical, then Walters is probably the best option for Ireland to lead the line. The Stoke forward has looked off the pace in his appearances so far this season (since his injury at Euro 2016, in fact), but needs must. This isn’t a game for a severely isolated Kevin Doyle up there on his own for the whole game.