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Tuesday 6 December 2016

Not so plain sailing for Austrians ahead of key Ireland qualifier

Austria boss Marcel Koller. Pic: Reuters
Austria boss Marcel Koller. Pic: Reuters
Marko Arnautovic. Pic: Reuters

Austria have been booted out of their training ground ahead of Saturday's World Cup game at home to Ireland.

Whether they are out of the running for Russia 2018, and their previously-popular manager Marcel Koller is out of a job by next week is as clear as the cloudy skies over Vienna this week.

But there's no doubt that Austria, who began 2016 as a well-drilled, astute unit who were going to Euro 2016 as potential dark horses, look like they will finish the calendar year in a darker place.

A win over Martin O'Neill's side on Saturday - and bear in mind that Ireland have lost six of their last eight meetings with the Austrians so it's possible - would put them back into contention and, depending on the outcome of Saturday's game in Cardiff between Wales and Serbia, you could have just two points separating the top four, making Group D the tightest in the competition.

Even Roy Keane is a tad wary of the Austrians, playing down their poor show at Euro 2016. "Austria didn't do as well at the Euros as they'd expected but that can happen to teams once they qualify," Keane said.

"They have good players, I like the look of them, players who play at a very high level, there is almost an Irish or British style to them, they are tenacious, they have a go. And it's going to be a tough game."

But of course Austria have to win first. Their preparations for Saturday have hit a few bumps on the road, with their No. 1 keeper and one each of their key defenders and midfielders absent through injury, while their leading striker is a 33-year-old who earns his crust in the Swiss league (ok, Marc Janko, the nemesis for Bohemians in the Champions League back in 2009, does still play in the Champions League too, for Basel).

Their training schedule has also been disrupted, as planned sessions this week for the training ground attached to the match stadium have been moved to another venue, 20km away on the other side of the city.

The pitch at their training ground suffered from some heavy rain and was unusable yesterday, but the Austrian side were denied permission to use the pitch at the match stadium itself, the Austrian FA wary of the pitch cutting up ahead of two senior internationals there, Saturday's date with Ireland and a friendly with Slovakia next week.

So they had to rethink and move to a new base, becoming "footballing commuters" as one local newspaper put it, the added travel across a busy city just another headache for their boss.

The Slovakia game will be a send-off for Leicester's Christian Fuchs, who retired from the national side after the Euros, but already his presence in the side is being missed.

The flop at Euro 2016 and the poor form in three qualifiers since then has placed question marks over the head of coach Koller, who was a national hero only a year ago but has seen his stock fall since.

The bosses of the boss are backing Koller and the Austrian FA maintain that he's not facing the axe.

"Even if we lose this match it would be difficult, but not impossible, to qualify, there are still 18 points to play for," the head of the Austrian FA said last night.

Koller says he can take the flak. "I was criticised when I started, we had some success and now I am criticised again," says the 55-year-old, appointed in 2011.

"My aim is to be a success and I will give my all to do that. Can I promise that we will beat Ireland? No, but I can say that we will try very hard. You always have mistakes, you have ups and downs.

"I am responsible for the team, I will take the criticism. But I still believe in the job I am doing."

Whether Austria still believes in him, we will see next weekend.

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