There was a huge sense of frustration in the Republic of Ireland camp at the end of their battling 1-1 draw with Austria at the weekend. While Martin O’Neill’s men were favourites to win the game, a share of the points keeps their 2018 World Cup campaign on track but as all involved will know, it could have been so much better.
Ireland were odds-against favourites to win the tie and that indicates a close market with the draw a popular call among the tipsters. Four points separated the teams in Group D and while the Irish had won the reverse fixture in Vienna back in November, the Austrians are a dangerous unit who have their own aspirations of making it to Russia.
Austria duly went ahead through Martin Hinteregger in the 31st minute and despite sustained Irish pressure, it seemed destined to stay that way through most of a frustrating second period. In normal circumstances therefore, Jon Walters’ brilliant 85th minute equaliser would have made the result seem like a victory but a controversial disallowed goal from Shane Duffy shortly after dominated the post-match press conferences.
The one piece of really good news for Ireland came from Belgrade where Group D leaders Serbia were held to a 1-1 draw by Wales. A win for the Serbs would have established a two point lead over Ireland in second place but a share of the spoils keeps them locked together on 12 points.
It also maintains Ireland’s four point lead over Austria and the Welsh. That’s the more crucial number and, while a first place and automatic qualification remains a legitimate target, a second place finish can take them through to the play offs.
With four games left therefore, it’s all to play for and, after the summer break, there are some crucial fixtures on the horizon for O’Neill’s men.
When football in Europe returns for the 2017/18 season, the first set of World Cup qualifiers sees Ireland travel to Georgia on the 2nd of September. Any away fixture is going to be tricky but the Georgians are second from bottom in the table with no wins and just three draws from their opening six fixtures.
From there, we have the game which could ultimately decide the destiny of this group. On the fifth of September, the Republic of Ireland host current Group D leaders Serbia in Dublin and, if O’Neill’s men can win and establish a three point lead at the top, they should be favourites to win the section and progress to Russia.
The final two fixtures in October see O’Neill’s men host bottom of the table Moldova and, assuming there are no shocks in that fixture, the campaign ends with a tricky away tie against Wales. By that stage, Gareth Bale will have returned from suspension and it could well be a must win game for the Welsh themselves but Ireland have the chance to have sewn up the group by the time they head to the Principality.
The post match interviews revealed the anger felt by Martin O’Neill and James McLean towards the officials following that disallowed goal against Austria. It denied them a much needed win but the important thing is that the players forget about it now and focus again in September when qualification is very much in their hands.
O’Neill himself is an experienced professional and he will know just how to get his players’ minds on the task in hand and, despite dropping two points in that most recent fixture, Ireland still have a great chance of automatic qualification for Russia 2018.