Republic of Ireland 2 Georgia 1
Robbie Keane turned in a captain’s performance as he fired home a World Cup double to take the Republic of Ireland level with reigning champions Italy at the top of Group Eight.
The 28-year-old striker completed a remarkable week or so for himself to wrench three points from Georgia’s grasp inside a breathless five second-half minutes.
Keane, whose misery at Liverpool was ended by his return to Tottenham last Monday, once again demonstrated his potency in the green of Ireland to rescue a precious victory from the jaws of defeat on a night when his side was given a real scare by Hector Cuper’s men.
The visitors, who had taken only two points from their first four qualifiers, went ahead through dangerman Alexander Iashvili with less than a minute gone.
They were fortunate to see a Keith Andrews equaliser disallowed for offside, but their luck ran out with 13 minutes remaining when defender Ucha Lobjanidze was harshly penalised for handball and Keane levelled from the spot.
Their dismay intensified five minutes later when Keane headed home Aiden McGeady’s corner to cement Ireland’s second place in the group – significantly seven points clear of Bulgaria, who visit Croke Park next month.
Keane had voiced the opinion that the Republic had never in his time on the senior international stage had a better chance of achieving automatic qualification, although he was to experience once again football’s uncanny ability to keep feet firmly on the ground.
The contest was around 46 seconds old when Iashvili struck and reminded Giovanni Trapattoni’s men that every single point will have to be fought for.
Striker David Siradze rose well to flick on Lobjanidze’s long ball and when Stephen Kelly, deputising for the injured Paul McShane, failed to react decisively, the tricky midfielder ghosted in to stab the ball past the helpless Shay Given.
Kelly’s evening did not improve quickly and Given rescued him three minutes later with a smart save after Iashvili had made the most of the full-back’s miscued header.
Ireland’s efforts to get themselves back into the game were laboured with widemen McGeady and Damien Duff seeing plenty of the ball, but doing little of note with it to leave their supporters increasingly frustrated.
The disappointment from the stands turned to anger with 25 minutes gone when salavation was snatched from the Republic’s grasp.
Duff’s enterprising run in-field from the right saw him pick out Andrews, making his first senior international start, and his side-footed shot found the back of the net with the help of a deflection off Kakha Kaladze.
But as Croke Park rose in celebration, Finnish referee Jouni Hyytia spotted a raised flag and disallowed the strike for offside against Kevin Doyle, despite television replays showing it was the defender and not he who had got the decisive touch.
McGeady forced a fine save from keeper Giorgi Lomaia with four minutes of the half remaining after the Celtic winger had run from his own half to the edge of the box, but it ended with Georgia still ahead and refusing to stick to the script.
The visitors had demonstrated impressive technique during the opening 45 minutes with Iashvili and Levan Kobiashvili influential in possession, and they returned knowing the numbers Ireland would have to commit to the search for an equaliser would leave space for them at the other end.
They thought they had extended their lead with 59 minutes gone when Kobishvili’s shot was deflected beyond a completely wrong-footed Given, who could only look on as the ball came back off the post and was slammed home by Iashvili.
But once again, an offside flag halted the celebrations, this time much to the relief of the home side.
McGeady had the crowd on their feet with 64 minutes gone when he latched on to a loose ball 20 yards out and blasted a shot towards goal, but with Lomaia beaten, his effort ripped into the side-netting.
The equaliser finally arrived with 17 minutes remaining, although fortune favoured Ireland when Lobjanidze was adjudged to have handled inside the area - the ball appeared to hit his shoulder – with the flag once again up for offside.
Keane’s finish from the spot was assured as Lomaia went the wrong way, and the keeper’s despair was to grow.
He did well to keep out Doyle’s 78th-minute effort, but Keane met the resulting corner with a fine header to give Ireland the lead for the first time in the game.