Former Republic of Ireland midfielder Ray Houghton believes Martin O'Neill's men will evolve and improve as a passing team, after they took control of Group D on the road to Russia 2018.

A brilliant James McClean breakaway goal plundered a massive three points in Vienna on Saturday night to nudge the Irish to the summit of the table with four games played.

They now put their feet up until March, when Wales come to Dublin, with their destiny very much in their own hands, and while this crop are lauded more for their perspiration than inspiration, Houghton is confident the foundations are there for Ireland to keep getting better.

"If you look at the results under Martin, I think we’ve only had one bad result, and that was against Belgium at the Euros," he told RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland.

What we did do on Saturday was take Austria out of the equation

"No one really beats us comfortably; it’s always tight. I think we can improve as a team when it comes to retaining possession of the ball, I think that will evolve as the games go on, we’ll get better and better at it.

"What we did do on Saturday was take Austria out of the equation. They have six games left and would have to  win five of them six to put themselves in the position to get into the top two.

"I can’t see that happening on the evidence of what I’ve seen so far, so it’s now between Serbia, Wales and ourselves as to who gets the top two spots. We’re in pole position at the moment."

McClean has been in exceptional form for his country - Saturday's decisive strike was his third goal in two games - but he had to play through the pain barrier in Austria.

The West Brom winger revealed after the game he required an epidural to feature after tearing a muscle in his back earlier in the week.

Houghton hailed the 27-year-old's dedication to the cause - and toasted a strike that leaves Ireland sitting pretty.  

“I’ve had two epidurals to try and play," Houghton said. "You’re trying to get yourself fit. You’re at the mercy of the doctors and the physios.

"They have the best knowledge of what’s best for you so you go along with it and James did a fantastic job to go out in the way he did.

"Martin after the game said if the game was a couple of days earlier there was absolutely no chance of him playing. He came out with that extremely important goal.

"We hadn’t won there ever. We should celebrate it. We’re in a very good position going into the games next year."