The Austrians are one point behind the European Group Four leaders, Scotland, with a match in hand, and go into their first encounter with Belarus, in Minsk today, full of confidence despite having two players suspended.
They will be without their goalkeeper Michael Konsel and their full-back Anton Pfeffer, who each received a one-match ban following their dismissals against Sweden on Saturday. Their absence is neatly balanced by Belarus's loss of two Dynamo Minsk players, the full-back Andrei Lavrik and the striker Vladimir Makovski, and the home side's morale is not high after their 4-1 defeat in Scotland on Sunday.
Belarus have little to gain but pride. Sunday's defeat was their fourth in a row in the group, leaving them second from bottom with just a single win, over Estonia more than a year ago.
Belarus's coach, Mikhail Vergienko, has admitted that his players are not feeling at their best after Sunday's defeat in a match delayed by a day because of the funeral of Princess Diana, but he promised they would do their utmost to make a contest of the match. "Our main problem is tiredness and not very high spirits after the defeat in Scotland, but we will fight hard to rehabilitate ourselves in front of our fans," he said.
Scotland still look likely to secure at least a place in the play-offs for the right to go to France. They have one match to play - against Latvia on 11 October, when Austria face Belarus at home - but third-placed Sweden need Scotland and Austria to fail to win any of their remaining matches.
For their game against Latvia today, Sweden's coach, Tommy Svensson, still plans to field virtually the same players who lost last week's crucial game against Austria.
Stockholm daily newspapers speculated yesterday that Roland Nilsson, the defender who was sent off in Saturday's game, will lose his place to Gary Sundgren.
"As long we have a chance to make it to the World Cup, I won't change the team," said Svensson, who reportedly plans to step down if Sweden does not qualify.
The Swedish federation has reportedly sounded out a number of candidates to replace Svensson, including Roy Hodgson who is now with Blackburn Rovers in the Premier League, and Sven-Goran Eriksson, who is coaching Lazio in the Italian league. But neither of them is seen as likely to accept the job.
"They are both extremely good coaches but I can't see how they would be able to accept. The Swedish soccer federation will never be able to match the salaries they are paid by Blackburn and Lazio," said the veteran midfielder Jonas Thern, who has threatened to retire from the international game if Sweden do not qualify. "I lack the motivation to give my best for another major championship," the national captain was quoted as saying by the newspaper Dagens Nyheter.Reuse content