Crunch World Cup qualifier for GAWA women in Austria

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Northern Ireland boss Kenny Shiels insists his side will be positive and focused when they face Austria in a FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023 qualifier in Wiener Neustadt on Friday night (7.30pm).

The two nations are cheek by jowl in European Qualifying Group D behind England, who are five points clear at the top with four games left.

A win for either team would put them in pole position to grab the runners-up berth in the group and to claim a play-off spot for the tournament in Australia and New Zealand.

Shiels said he expects the hosts, whom he described as 'a very strong team', to press high early on and to play with high intensity.

But he is confident his players can deal with that and can impose themselves on the game, which he described as a 'cup final'.

When the two nations met in a World Cup qualifier back in the autumn Austria scored very late on at Seaview to snatch a 2-2 draw.

Shiels believes the Austrians will be more wary of his team when they meet again in Group D and he also firmly believes his players are capable of getting a win at the 4000-capacity Stadion Wiener Neustadt.

He noted a handful of the personnel in Irene Fuhrmann’s Austrian squad took part in the UEFA Women’s Champions League last week.

The Austria panel is packed with full-time professional players who operate in leagues across Europe, although mainly in either the German or Austrian top flights (Frauen Bundesliga and Frauenliga).

The Austrian squad features a raft of experienced international players who all have 70 caps or more – and many of them were in the squad that reached the semi-finals of the Women’s Euros in 2017.

They include Arsenal goalkeeper Manuela Zinsberger, Eintracht Frankfurt defender Verena Hanshaw and team captain Viktoria Schnaderbeck, who plays for Tottenham Hotspur in the WSL.

Bayern Munich defensive midfielder Carina Wenninger has 112 caps, while Eintracht midfielder Laura Feiersinger is in the 80 caps-plus bracket along with two others in the engine room, Sarah Puntigam of Montpellier Heraut (116 caps) and Sarah Zadrazil of Bayern Munich (91 caps).

Austria’s sharpshooter is Hoffenheim’s Nicole Billa, who has just turned 26 but already has 76 caps and 41 goals at international level under her belt and was the top scorer in the Frauen Bundesliga last season. Another option up front is Lisa Makas (Austria Wien), who has scored 18 times for her country in 66 appearances.

Arsenal defender Laura Wienroither and Hoffenheim defender Katharina Naschenweng are among a handful of younger players who ably support the more seasoned campaigners.

Thanks to the full-time training programme now in operation in Belfast ahead of the Women’s Euros this summer, Shiels effectively has a panel of professionals to choose from as well.

A team featuring several part-time players visibly tired towards the end of the game when the Austrians were in town last year, however the Northern Ireland Women manager says his players are stronger and sharper now and he does not expect them to run out of steam in Wiener Neustadt.

Shiels will relish going up against a nation ranked 21st in the world. The girls in green and white are ranked 46th just now.

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