INTERNATIONAL football fanatic Mark O'Haire (@MarkOHaire) shares his verdict on Sunday's crucial UEFA World Cup qualifying clash between the Republic of Ireland and Austria in Dublin.
Republic of Ireland v Austria | Sunday 17:00 | Sky Sports 1
An 11-point haul (W3-D2-L0) at the midway point of 2018 World Cup qualification has placed the Republic of Ireland in second place in Group D, trailing pool leaders Serbia only on goal difference.
It’s been a strong start from Martin O’Neill’s men who’ve already taken four points from away trips to the Serbians and Austria. The 1-0 triumph in Vienna was Ireland’s first competitive win away to a side ranked higher than the Republic since 1987. Remove British sides, and the year becomes 1967.
Ireland’s poor performance data
The Boys In Green may have been out-shot 29-16 across those two away days but expected goals data gives Ireland a 2.75- 2.46 advantage; unusual for a nation that often performs poorly when viewing performance data metrics.
As an example, the Republic have only landed 17 on-target attempts across their five fixtures thus far – that’s the same tally as Georgia, six fewer than Estonia and only one better than Kosovo and Estonia.
En-route to Euro 2016, only Albania (26%) returned a lower shot ratio return than Ireland’s (32%) when only counting games against top-three finishers with the Boys In Green out-shot 33-55 when taking on Germany, Poland and Scotland.
So it’s easy to see why big-staking punters are often keen to ignore or oppose the Republic. But Ireland excel in their work-rate, their desire, their organisation, their defensive durability, their set-piece strengths and their ability to frustrate and penetrate off minimal possession.
A 4-2-3-1 formation reverts to 4-5-1 when the ball is turned over and despite living off relative scraps, the Irish have managed to score in all bar six of their past 31 competitive contests since Euro 2012. Put simply, they’re often ugly but they’re also mightily effective.
O’Neill’s charges boast the best defensive record in the group and have kept clean sheets in each of their past five meaningful matches in Dublin. It’s also worth noting that the former European Cup winner is unbeaten in eight (W5-D3-L0) qualifiers here since 2014.
With Shane Long absent, Jonathan Walters – scorer of four goals in six competitive games – is expected to shake-off an injury to start in attack. Should the Stoke striker miss out, Newcastle's Daryl Murphy will be the only fit and available forward in the squad and that’s a potential problem to be addressed.
Austria’s damaging team news
However, any selection issues in the Irish camp pale into insignificance when compared to Austria’s availability issues. Of the XI players that started for Das Team against Ireland in November, five are missing. Add another four squad members to that group and it’s clear Sunday’s visitors are far from full-strength.
Goalkeeper Ramazan Ozcan announced his retirement from international football in March due to personal reasons. With Robert Almer and Andreas Lukse injured, Heinz Lindner is set to continue as the makeshift number one.
Left-back has been a problem position for Austria since Christian Fuchs hung up his international boots after last year’s Euros. Kevin Wimmer and Martin Hinteregger have both been tried there in recent times whilst regular replacement Andres Ulmer is skipping the game to get married.
Elsewhere, Marko Arnautovic – top scorer in qualifying – and Stefan Ilsanker are both suspended whilst Marcel Sabitzer and Alessandro Schoepf are injured, leaving Austria short of midfield options.
Das Team under pressure
Finally, first-choice forward Marc Janko is unavailable through illness. That leaves three strikers in the squad – who have a collective total of zero international goals – but Schalke’s Guido Burgstaller should ensure Janko’s absence is nothing worse than an inconvenience.
Reports suggest head coach Marcel Koller will field three at the back and add numbers to his midfield. But trailing the Irish and Serbia by four points at this stage, Austria will be well aware they must pick up a positive result to rid the haze surrounding their Euro 2016 hangover.
Das Team have only beaten Georgia and Moldova thus far and rumours are circulating of dressing room unrest and separation in the squad. Another disappointing display should spell the end of Koller’s six-year reign.
The betting angles
Since the start of Euro 2016 the Austrians have W2-D2-L4 in competitive games, though they’ve netted in five of the last six of these encounters. With David Alaba the standout star on show, Das Team have the capability to hurt the Republic so I’m not willing to totally write-off the Euros flops.
However, three clean sheets in 15 outings suggests there’s enough problems at the back for Ireland to exploit. The Boys In Green can be backed at 19/10 (BetStars) to win in a match involving Under 3.5 Goals – a cracking price for punters keen to support O’Neill’s men.
But I’m playing it much safer for my NAP with the 4/6 on the Republic off a 0 start on the Asian Handicap market very generous with 188BET. We’ll see our stake returned if the game ends in a draw, a result that would maintain Ireland’s advantage and holding a rival at arm’s length.
The Republic as a nation don’t often deal with the pressure of favouritism well in these sorts of environments and I’d be surprised if the hosts were anything other than cautious.
Republic of Ireland v Austria – Republic of Ireland 0 Asian Handicap (4/6 188BET)
Republic of Ireland v Austria – Republic of Ireland to win and Under 3.5 Goals (19/10 BetStars)