by Ed Leahy
Ireland were dealt a cruel hand at the Aviva on Tuesday night, as Austria grabbed an injury-time equalise to secure a valuable away point in the race for second place in Group C.
The result was decided by a quality strike by David Alaba in the final minute, but there were a lot of key moments that ultimately led to that heart-breaking moment for the Irish.
So if the wounds are not too raw, let’s take a look back.
Moment of madness
10:04 The ball is bouncing about midfield and Glenn Whelan instructs Marc Wilson to play it out wide to James McClean. Wilson, under pressure, fails to get the ball under control and is forced to check back towards his own goal.
A simple pass is rolled to the feet of centre-half Ciaran Clark. Nothing is on and in a moment of madness, Clark looks to skip in between two Austrian midfielders, but Junuzovic dispossesses the Villa man and squares a great ball to Harnik who runs through and toe-pokes the ball past the advancing Forde.
That goal was a real body blow to the Ireland team who had weathered the early Austrian storm and were starting to take control. Ireland might have got away with that mistake against weaker opposition but the Austrians showed that they came into the game full of confidence and duly punished the hosts.
16:24 A powerful Jonathan Walters holds David Alaba at bay inside the penalty box and gets his head on James McClean’s cross. Alaba turns his back on the ball but leaves his hand up in the air and inadvertently blocks the ball from going towards the goal.
The referee ignores the Irish half-hearted claim for a penalty, and they are rarely given, but perhaps it gave the official food for thought for some upcoming decisions.
20:01 James McCarthy was always favourite for the challenge with Junuzovic in midfield and didn’t really need to go through the player while winning the ball. The injury to the player and a lot of Austrian protests appeared to convince the referee to book the Irish midfielder.
McCarthy had to spend the remaining 70 minutes on his feet and if he had remained caution-free until the second half, it may have allowed him to be a be more aggressive in the final 20 minutes.
On the plus side, the challenge finished the Austrian playmaker’s involvement in the game and it is also a good thing to get McCarthy’s suspension out of the way as the next game is against the Faroe Islands as he will not be needed in the June clash.
23:15 Philipp Hosiner’s cross-field ball is deflected way up into the air as James McCarthy gets back to cover the Austria counter attack. Seamus Coleman appears to misjudge the flight of the ball and allows it to bounce in a very dangerous area on the edge of the box.
But Coleman gets away with it and beats the inrushing Arnautovic to the ball and heads clear. Walters volleys up field, Sammon beats the indecisive Pogatetz, feeds Whelan, who slides a great ball down the right channel into the path of Shane Long.
The recovering Pogatetz commits to the tackle and Long just needs to shift the ball out of his feet and take the impact for a stonewall penalty.
All this time Austria were playing with ten men, thanks to the previous McCarthy yellow card and Walters put his two penalty misses this season out of his mind to smash home the equaliser.
The back heel
37:26 The ball is at Shane Long’s feet. A long clearance by Forde is won in the air by Sammon and leads to McClean driving the ball into the penalty area. Sammon again gets involved and the Austrian players mis-time their clearance before the ball comes to rest at the Ireland striker’s feet.
But Long has his back to goal and five Austrians are closing in on the ball. Quick thinking by Long, who back heels the ball goalwards, the keeper can only watch as the ball hits the post and Fuchs clears to keep the score level at 1-1. Such ingenuity is a rare commodity in a green shirt these days and deserved a goal.
No reward for honesty
40:25 Harnik skips past Marc Wilson inside the Ireland box. The Irish left-back is the wrong side of the Austria goalscorer and gives him a slight tug as he tries to get around to make the tackle.
Harnik, probably still buoyed by the earlier strike, thinks he is in on goal and declines to go down. But that little tug was enough to give Clark the time to get over to block and Ireland clear.
The appeal by Harnik is too late and he really should have gone down to make the referee make a decision. An example of a player’s honesty getting him no reward, and a continental player at that.
Ireland take the lead
45:08 Ireland win their second corner in quick succession after more great work by James McClean on both occasions. James McClean trots out to take the corner but Glenn Whelan pulls rank and sends him away from the ball after his last corner failed to beat the first defender.
Whelan’s inswinging corner has a bit more depth to it and Walters gets in front of marker Fuchs to head home and Ireland take a 2-1 lead into the break.
57:07 Glenn Whelan comes across to make a great covering tackle on Alaba. Conor Sammon, tracking back deep into his own half, picks up the loose ball before getting cleaned out of it by Veli Kavlak.
Kavlak was on a yellow card and was very lucky not to be sent off for the mistimed sliding tackle. In fairness to the Austrian, his initial yellow card was soft and that may have been in the referee’s mind.
Either way, the Austrian bench realised that one more foul and he was off, so he was replaced shortly afterwards, allowing the impressive Aston Villa youngster Andrea Weimann to get a chance to influence the result.
Penalty appeal waved away
60:49 Alaba whips in a corner from the left. Pogatetz has got on the wrong side of Clark and a moment later both players go tumbling to the floor in full sight of the referee, but the official ignores the incident and awards Ireland a goal-kick.
Pogatetz indicates to the ref that he had been spun illegally and appeals for the penalty, but is waved away. Clark stays down holding his face, which is a pure sign of guilt, and Ireland escape. Needless to say, Clark didn’t need any medical attention for the facial ‘injury’.
Ireland drop back
70:00 A cross into the box is headed clear by Clark from the penalty spot. Conor Sammon gets across to help and sends the ball across the half-way line. Austria regain possession and the ball is played wide to Fuchs on the left wing just inside the Ireland half.
In those 15 seconds, the Irish back four had only pushed to the edge of the box and the midfield four remained sitting just in front. Someone had made the decision not to push out and this was a signal to Austria that the Irish were looking to see the game out in that manner.
It’s highly unlikely that that decision came from the sideline and was the responsibility of the captain, playing in the middle of defence, or perhaps the keeper to push his defence out at least another 20 yards from the edge of the box.
And so it remained as the Irish defence barely shifted from that position on the edge of their box as they felt that they could absorb twenty minutes, plus injury time, of wave after wave of Austrian attacks.
Hoolahan stays on the bench
82:54 The manager decides to make a change and brings on Paul Green for Shane Long, who had run his heart out all evening. Now responsibility shifts back to the manager for the final seven minutes and whatever injury time is to be played.
Instead of bringing on a player like Wes Hoolahan who might be able to hold onto possession and allow Ireland to push out of their own half, another holding midfielder was added to the Ireland bus that was well and truly parked on the edge of the box.
Green, in theory, went to the right of midfield with Walters moving forward, but it certainly didn’t relieve the pressure or encourage Ireland to push out.
88:38 Austria set-up to take a free on the edge of their box after John O’Shea was adjudged to have fouled Janko in an aerial challenge.
Alaba, Fuchs and Baumgartlinger stood over the ball, sitting 12 yards out from the edge of the Ireland penalty box. Fuchs ran over the ball, followed by Baumgartlinger and the Austrian attackers pulled the entire Irish defence across the box leaving Pogatetz and Harnik, who had spun in the opposite direction, unmarked at the back post.
Harnik’s header was meant to go back across the goal to Janko but it was too close to Forde and the Irish keeper grabbed it and made the vital interception.
Such a well-worked free-kick, it really deserved to be rewarded but it seemed to be a sign that it was Ireland’s night. Surely nothing could go wrong now as Ireland moved up the field and Paul Green won a free kick in the far corner of the pitch, the clock now ticking on into the three minutes of additional time.
90:24 Green stands over the ball to take the free-kick. Ireland put three men into the box making it look like they would play the ball into the danger zone. Walters eventually runs towards the ball and receives the short pass from Green, but off balance, Walters is easily dispossessed and gives away a very soft free-kick.
Why this free wasn’t surrounded by three or four Irish players and played into a little triangle by the corner flag? A bizarre decision and one that would come back to haunt the Irish.
Ireland fail to push out
91:24 Green wins the ball and checks back inside, passing to the unmarked McCarthy who clips the ball into the corner, where the Austria keeper has to collect and pass into midfield so that it can be fed back up the pitch.
In the meantime, the Ireland back four have not budged from the edge of the box and believe they can see out the final minute and a half.
The first ball is cleared but only to Harnik who finds Alaba in space on the edge of the box.
91:53 The Bayern Munich man takes one touch and gets his shot away as O’Shea and St Ledger look to block. The ball takes a slight deflection off St Ledger and the whizzes past the outstretched hand of David Forde and into the back of the net.
The Verdict: While the passing was far from free-flowing, it was a very entertaining game of football as the Ireland team followed on their hard-fought point in Stockholm with a very passionate performance in front of a vociferous home support.
They showed great character to bounce back from an early goal to take the lead and dominate the Austrians for the majority of the first half.
The second-half tactics ultimately cost the Irish two points as the visitors were allowed to attack at will for the final 20 minutes with the Irish defence sitting on the edge of the box protecting that lead.
The Austrians deserved the equaliser and must be applauded for bringing a positive approach to the game.
And while we predicted an Ireland victory, thinking Trapattoni’s tried and tested system would be the difference between the two sides, it was, in fact, those very tactics that allowed Austria to pile the pressure on Ireland for the final twenty minutes and ultimately get rewarded with a valuable away point.
Overall, a lot of positives to be taken out of the two games and while the four-point return was not forthcoming, Ireland didn’t lose any ground on Sweden and Austria and the battle for second place will continue into the summer months and beyond.
All three sides will take points from each other, so the real concern is that the second-place points tally in Group C might not be enough to gain one of the eight play-off places.