World Cup Qualifier
Republic of Ireland 1-1 Austria
Jonathan Walters got the Republic of Ireland out of jail as Austria threatened to dent their World Cup qualification hopes.
Walters’ 85th-minute equaliser to earn a 1-1 draw ensures the Republic will head into September’s Group D double-header against Georgia and Serbia still four points clear of the Austrians, who left Dublin wondering just how they had taken only a point.
They might even have boarded the plane empty-handed had Shane Duffy’s late header not been ruled out for a foul, but that would have been harsh on a side who had deservedly led through Martin Hinteregger’s strike.
The Austrians had been exercised by Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane’s exhortation to his players to “go to war” at the Aviva Stadium, but the home side’s initial efforts barely amounted to a skirmish until they eventually threw caution to the wind.
Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick were largely becalmed as a chance to take a huge stride towards Russia very nearly went begging, and they will have to be much better in their remaining four games if they are to make it to Russia.
Manager Martin O’Neill sprang a surprise when he handed a third cap and a competitive debut to Burnley defender Kevin Long, who could hardly have dreamt that would be his reward for missing out on being best man at his brother’s wedding last weekend to join up with the squad.
But the champagne he missed out on on that occasion remained on ice as Ireland turned in as poor an opening 45 minutes as they have done for some time, as their distaste for being regarded as favourites proved well-founded.
An Austria side missing many of their big names by injury, illness and suspension took the game by the scruff of the neck, just as O’Neill had urged his own players to do in the run-up.
Having employed Walters as a lone striker and asked James McClean, Hendrick and Brady to support him, the manager was forced into a re-think with just 36 minutes played after seeing his team labour to create anything of note and resort instead to launching hopeful long balls in Walters’ direction.
By that point, they were already trailing with full-back Hinteregger having blasted the visitors into a 31st-minute lead after defender Sebastian Prodl dummied David Alaba’s out-swinging corner.
It was no more than they deserved from a half during which Alaba and Hinteregger down one wing and Valentino Lazaro and Stefan Lainer down the other had got forward at will to put Ireland under pressure.
Both full-back Cyrus Christie and Brady, who endured one of his least effective halves of football for his country, were booked as they attempted to stem the tide, and there was a far from warm welcome awaiting in the dressing room at the break.
Ireland needed an early response and resumed in encouraging fashion when defender Duffy headed just wide, although they might have fallen further behind when Alaba skied a shot after exchanging passes with Florian Kainz, and Zlatko Junuzovic was denied by Duffy’s last-ditch block.
Harry Arter dragged a 55th-minute shot wide when he might have done better, and that prompted O’Neill to make his move, sending on striker Daryl Murphy for left-back Stephen Ward moving Brady into the back four. Murphy’s introduction certainly gave Ireland more options going forward but the Newcastle man couldn’t break the deadlock.
The drama only arrived in the closing stages with the Republic going for broke.
Long saw his 80th-minute header hacked off the line by Lainer, but the home side were not to be denied and they levelled five minutes later when Walters smashed a dipping volley across goalkeeper Heinz Lindner and into the bottom corner.
Ireland thought they had won it seconds later when Duffy bundled the ball home from close range after substitute Florian Grillitsch desperately hacked the ball towards his own goal, but Spanish referee David Borbalan had spotted a foul on Lainer on the line and chalked it off.
All in all a point is not a bad result for the Boys in Green after their below par performance. They remain top of the Group alongside Serbia who drew 1-1 with Wales in Belgrade tonight. The Welsh stay level with Austria with 8 points.