James McClean’s 48th-minute goal ensured that Ireland remain unbeaten in their World Cup qualifying Group D, as they beat Austria 1-0 at the Ernst Happel Stadion in Vienna.
Martin O’Neill’s side came looking for a point but they left with all three as they withstood early pressure from a buoyed up home side, roared on by a capacity crowd in Vienna.
And luck was also on Ireland’s side as Marcel Sabitzer went through on goal but while his shot beat the advancing Darren Randolph, the crossbar saved O’Neill’s side from going behind.
And perhaps that incident kick-started Ireland’s performance as a sustained spell of pressure followed, leading to Ireland’s best chance of the opening half, as Robbie Brady crossed for Jonathan Walters but the Stoke City striker slammed the ball over the bar.
The sides went in level at the break and both teams would have felt that they had just edged proceedings, but there was no doubt about which team was on top three minutes into the second half.
A break out from defence and two passes later, James McClean was rushing through on goal.
Head down, Derry’s favourite son slammed the ball past the Austria keeper sending the large contingent of Irish fans behind the goal into spontaneous delirium.
Backs to the wall stuff followed, but without really looking panicked or under pressure, and O’Neill’s side saw out the remaining minutes to complete a near-perfect start to this World Cup qualifying campaign.
Hoolahan again key to Ireland victory
All the experts were calling for the Norwich City man to be included following his performance in Moldova and credit must go to the manager, as he had stated that he wanted his side playing on the front foot.
A slow start for the Norwich man and Ireland were nearly caught cold in the opening minutes as Hoolahan was dispossessed with Coleman in an advanced position.
But soon after, the former Shelbourne man found his stride and started to control the tempo when Ireland were in possession with Hoolahan looking calm and composed on the ball and bringing others into play.
No more so than late in the first half when a sublime one-two, made in Carrow Road, sent Robbie Brady down the line. The left-back whipped in a sensational ball that just needed finishing but Walters missed from five yards out.
But then came that moment that showed just why a fit Hoolahan should really be first name on the team-sheet.
Ireland broke and David Meyler found Hoolahan in space in the middle of the pitch. Hoolahan’s touch was, as expected, exquisite. But the ball that he played perfectly into the path of McClean is something that no other player in a green jersey could have completed.
The pass was hit with real pace but appeared to check in the Vienna turf and roll right into the path of McClean, who did not have to change stride. That delivery was most worthy of that goal that followed.
Lessons learned as defensive duo perform
If the Ireland manager was going to get criticised for his team selection, the only area that could have been scrutinised was his last line of defence.
O’Neill kept faith with his now favoured central defensive partnership of Shane Duffy and CIaran Clark.
Handed the tricky task of marking man mountain Marc Janko, the Irish duo shared the responsibility and kept the striker largely ineffective throughout the contest.
Marcel Sabitzer was proving difficult to mark sitting in that number 10 position but as the match progressed, the Austrian’s influence lessened.
Moments from both players early in the game proved that they had learned a valuable lesson in Moldova where both players were criticised for their decision-making leading up to the home side’s strike.
Duffy raced across to cover when Seamus Coleman was caught up field and not only did the big Brighton man show great composure to take the ball in his stride, he also managed to look up, take a touch, and find a green jersey to set up an Ireland attack.
Likewise, Clark’s reading of the game was excellent throughout as he was also quick to get across to thwart danger man Marko Arnautovic early in the game, but the Newcastle United defender was also on high alert to get across to clear when Kevin Wimmer turned the ball back across goal following Sabitzer’s crossbar effort.
The second half saw the pair make endless interceptions and blocks as wave after wave of Austrian pressure was soaked up by both, giving great confidence to all around.
The final ten minutes saw Austria go down the very direct route of launching high balls into the box.
By that stage Duffy and Clark must have known that their job was all but done as they handled everything aerial with ease.
Man of the Match
James McClean is starting to look like Ireland’s talisman following up his brace in Moldova with a super strike to win tonight’s encounter in Vienna.
But it was so much more than the goal tonight that merited McClean the man of the match award.
For a player, who the manager admitted after the game would have missed the match through injury had it been played on Tuesday, to put in such an energy-filled performance beggars belief.
The Derry man’s career has always been under the spotlight, but mostly for what happens off the pitch than how he performs on the pitch.
But ever since that inspired performance in the green jersey against Italy during the summer, McClean has really come of age on the international scene.
Austria: Ramazan Ozcan; Florian Klein, Aleksandar Dragovic, Martin Hinteregger, Kevin Wimmer (Stefan Ilsanker 78); Julian Baumgartlinger, David Alaba,; Marcel Sabitzer (Martin Harnik 73), Alessandro Schopf (Louis Schaub 57), Marko Arnautovic; Marc Janko.
Ireland: Darren Randolph; Seamus Coleman, Shane Duffy, Ciaran Clark, Robbie Brady; Glenn Whelan (David Meyler 24), Harry Arter, Jeff Hendrick; Wes Hoolahan (David McGoldrick 78), James McClean (Aiden McGeady 85), Jonathan Walters.
Referee: Sergei Karasev