A vibrant first half display, during which Daryl Murphy struck on the double and competitive debutant Callum O’Dowda entirely vindicated his selection by Martin O’Neill, was enough to compensate for a more lacklustre second 45 and an overall night to forget for Shane Long, as Ireland comfortably negotiated their penultimate World Cup qualifying game and now move on to Cardiff on Monday with first and second place in Group D still to be decided.
By the time kick off arrived in Dublin, confirmation of the early result from Tbilisi – where Wales had beaten Georgia 1-0 – meant that Ireland’s game against Moldova was now, officially and incontrovertibly, a must-win.
Martin O’Neill had been treating it as such since the defeat to Serbia, of course, his attack-minded selection seeing Daryl Murphy and Shane Long sharing the strikers’ load while, earning his competitive debut, the management’s new favourite Callum O’Dowda was charged with providing attacking width while old favourite, Aiden McGeady, was consigned, at least for 75 minutes, to the wrong kind of wings. The diamond midfield formation had David Meyler, named as skipper, at its base and, to the inevitable acclaim of the Aviva crowd, Wes Hoolahan at its apex but, more accurately, at the heart of everything good about Ireland’s display.
And the home supporters had even more to cheer about inside just two minutes of the first whistle as Daryl Murphy, Ireland’s in-form club striker of the moment, finally got to double his international tally. As so often with this team, a set-piece set up the breakthrough, Stephen Ward’s long throw from the left deflecting off a Moldovan head before the Nottingham Forest man, showing Robbie Keane-like predatory instincts, found the net with a volley on the turn from close-range.
Of course, it didn’t require a long memory to recall that Ireland had gotten off to a similarly quick start away to Georgia, and that turned out to be a false dawn if ever there was one.
But with the slender, spring-heeled O’Dowda impressing with his confidence on the ball, Ireland showed no sign of going into their shell at home, though their willingness to get forward in numbers meant that Meyler had to do a captain’s job by covering for his defence and snuffing out the danger when the visitors mounted a rare counter-attack.
In the 14th minute, O’Dowda showed strength, skill and awareness all in the one fluent sequence, as he set up the unmarked Shane Long for a shot from a central position which, to the dismay of the Aviva, the Southampton man side-footed just wide of the target, the kind of missed opportunity which would have done nothing to boost the striker’s confidence after his barren spell in front of goal.
Murphy, however, suddenly found he couldn’t stop scoring. The move began with a sweeping, diagonal ball from Hoolahan to find Ward bombing up the left flank and, from the full-back’s perfect cross, the Waterford man arched his neck muscles and powered a superb header past the diving Ille Cebanu.
Long, by contrast, continued to frustrate and be frustrated, a double chance to score being denied first by the ‘keeper and then a defender, after Jeff Hendrick had set him up at the end of a surging run through the middle.
Darren Randolph was only called into action for the first time just short of the hour mark and, as if not wanting to be left out of the highlights reel his team seemed intent on assembling, Ireland’s Number One produced an outstanding fingertip save to prevent Sergiu Platicu’s screamer out of nothing from spoiling the upbeat mood.
With Hoolahan continuing to pull the creative strings, Cyrus Christie’s determination to take on the opposing full-back was becoming an increasing feature of the Irish performance and, it was after he’d been unceremoniously chopped down, that Jeff Hendrick’s free from the right was headed narrowly wide by Ciaran Clark, before Shane Duffy headed over from an O’Dowda corner in what was the last significant act of a satisfying first half for pretty much all the boys in green, with the unfortunate exception of the misfiring Long.
After a sleepy restart by Ireland had offered the visitors some modest encouragement, the 60 minute mark saw the game briefly burst back into life, but not in a good way for the home side, as an almost disbelieving Aviva was obliged to bear witness to Long’s most glaring miss yet, the striker somehow screwing a shot beyond the far post of a gaping goal after first Hoolahan and then O’Dowda had squandered their own chances to find the net.
Increasingly, you could sense a touch of anxiety in the stands in the knowledge that, while a two-goal lead for Ireland appeared comfortable, it would take just one reply in kind from Moldova to completely alter the mood. Fortunately for the Irish, though neat enough in the build-up, the opposition’s final ball was invariably poor and, on the odd occasion they did have even a vague sniff of goal, they seemed lacking in their own cutting edge.
Speaking of which, as an increasingly downbeat game entered the last quarter, the chants of a section of the Irish supporters let it be known that they wanted to see Sean Maguire on the pitch. O’Neill initially ignored their pleas, sending on Harry Arter for Daryl Murphy and Aiden McGeady for Wes Hoolahan, the latter departing to a huge ovation from the faithful.
But then came one greater still with seven minutes of normal time remaining, the applause and cheers pouring down as Sean Maguire stepped onto the Aviva turf for his debut in the green shirt, Shane Long bestowing a warm hug as one former Cork City player made way for another.
Maguire had enough time to show some tidy flourishes but not enough to make any further impact on the scoreboard.
Meanwhile, a bad night for Moldova ended with Alexandru Gatcan receiving his marching orders for sticking the head into Arter while a good night for Ireland was made better on the disciplinary front, with none of the five participants already on yellow cards – Christie, Ward, Duffy, Meyler and McGeady – picking up the additional one which would have ruled them out of Monday’s game in Cardiff.And with Serbia tripping up in Vienna last night, who knows what the reward might yet be for the winners of that one?
Randolph; Christie, Duffy, Clark, Ward, Meyler, Hendrick, Hoolahan (McGeady 78), O’Dowda, Long (Maguire 83), Murphy (Arter 78).
Cebanu, Bordian, Rozgoniuc, Epureanu, Racu, Platica (Ambros 78), Gatcan, Ionita, Anton, Dedov (Cociuc 55) Ginsari Referee: Bas Nijhuis (Netherlands)
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