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Wednesday 23 August 2017

Walters strike saves crucial point for Ireland

Ireland 1 Austria 1

Republic of Ireland's Jonathan Walters celebrates scoring their first goal
Republic of Ireland's Jonathan Walters celebrates scoring their first goal
Republic of Ireland's Daryl Murphy scores a goal which was subsequently disallowed

Martin O'Neill has found a way to win big games before but on this occasion, he almost found a way to lose one.

Jon Walters, mustering a final surge of energy, scored a late equaliser following Martin Hinteregger's lead goal.

But it was impossible to avoid the feeling that this was two points thrown away by a poor team selection which left Wes Hoolahan kicking his heels on the bench from the start.

How O'Neill cannot see what everyone else can see when Hoolahan plays is a mystery but he doesn't trust his best playmaker and a great chance to dominate Group D was blown.

It could have been even worse. This was a game which could have had any result at all. It would have been hard to argue if Austria had won and just as difficult to debate an Ireland win.

Once again, Hoolahan made all the difference when he came onto the pitch, this time with less than 20 minutes to make an impact., demanding the ball and doing things which his teammates were told not to do by O'Neill.

Obvious

Before the game even started, it was obvious where O'Neill wanted the game to go. The Achill Pipe Band tuned their bagpipes high which made Amhran na bFhiann hard to sing and gave the song a bitter edge which stirred the blood and made the Austrians think about Roy Keane and war.

Stephen Ward sat back in a pocket on the left flank for the tip-off and when the ball reached him, he took a glance at the scampering heels of Jon Walters, James McClean and Robbie Brady haring towards the Austrian penalty area and let fly a long diagonal ball. The scene was set.

If the intent was to intimidate the Austrians, it didn't work so well.

Playing with three at the back, they mopped up most of the long stuff and were composed enough to get the ball down and work their way into the Ireland half.

Traffic increased towards Darren Randolph's goal but the defensive screen staffed by Glenn Whelan and Harry Arter and held firm and limited them to half-chances.

Slowly, Ireland took a grip and almost took the lead in the 23rd minute with the first move of any coherence.

A pass from Whelan found Ward on the right. He moved it on to McClean and a nice cutback put Walters in with a yard but off balance. His shot reflected that, flying high and wide right.

On the half-hour came a body blow. Most of Austria's best work in the early moments came down the left, suggesting that O'Neill's risky pairing of Cyrus Christie with Robbie Brady was vulnerable.

They forced three corners in quick succession and the third, from the left, was dummied by Sebastian Prodl and Alek Dargovic to find Martin Hinteregger entering the box late. He found a gap between Randolph and the left upright to score with a fine strike.

Plenty of work, then, for O'Neill and Keane to do at half-time but it was Koller's men who started the second-half with the right intensity and they almost got a second with a few minutes of the restart.

David Alaba swept up the centre of the pitch and laid a pass to his right for Florian Kainz who curled the return into the box.

Alaba had continued his run and his shot spun off his right foot and just wide.

From an Irish point of view, the game was crying out for Hoolahan.

Instead, O'Neill turned to Daryl Murphy in the 57th minute with Ward making way and Brady moving to left-full.

The change seemed to work, perhaps because Ireland now had two targets for the long ball and green shirts poured forward.

Arter had a shot which flew wide and then Walters as the pressure cranked up and the crowd found its voice. McClean had a rampaging run which ended in a shot wide when he might have found Arter or Brady outside him but this was better stuff from Ireland.

Better still when O'Neill finally found it in his heart to put Hoolahan on, in for Arter and straight into the game.

His cross from the right into a crowded goalmouth found the foot of Stefan Lainier and the ball went straight into Heinz Lindner's arms.

Throwing caution to the wind, O'Neill sent on Aiden McGeady and now, all his creative options were on the pitch.

A corner from Brady on the right was met with a glancing header from long which Lainer cleared off the line but pressure mounted and when Brady's clearance set Walters away in the 85th minute, he delivered a brilliant finish and a crunch goal.

Austria, under enormous pressure in the final moments, had breakaway chances to snatch the win but O'Neill had the biggest reason to be disappointed with the result when what seemed a like a perfectly good Shane Duffy goal was disallowed.

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