After a second-half performance against Georgia that was as different to the first as day is to night, Ireland have taken a four-point lead over Scotland in the race for a play-off place for Euro 2016.
Of course they’re not there yet and, theoretically, an automatic spot is still within reach but, after taking more than 45 minutes to wake up and impose themselves on the group’s second from bottom team, nobody will be betting any money on Ireland’s ability to turn the tables on Germany or Poland.
For now, the main feeling will be one of relief that, after threatening to turn a Tbilisi gift horse into a bit of a ‘mare for the whole of a depressingly poor first half, a combination of the introduction of Shane Long at half-time and a brilliant assist for Jon Walters’ winner from Jeff Hendrick, helped Ireland to maximum points as the Scots were falling short again, this time at home to the world champions.
With Seamus Coleman passed fit to reclaim his place at full-back from Cyrus Christie, Martin O’Neill deemed no other changes necessary from the team which saw off Gibraltar in Faro, a rare enough example of the manager naming something close to a settled side for two games in succession.
The Derryman had made no secret of his desire to get Coleman back on the pitch for a night when the hope at kick off was that he could provide attacking width to complement Robbie Brady on the other side, something that would be of particular importance in the absence from the starting line of orthodox wide men like Aiden McGeady and James McClean.
A quick tempo start was also required in a bid to douse any residual fire the Georgians might have brought with them from their victory against Scotland in Tbilisi but two unforced errors by Brady in the opening minutes, the second a wildly misplaced attempt at a crossfield ball which gifted the visitors a corner, spoke of familiar Irish nerves in a situation where all the pressure was on the home side.
Six minutes in came the first Irish chance when, at the end of fine move involving Wes Hoolahan and Jon Walters, Robbie Keane chested the ball down into a shooting position at the far post but, falling back, was unable to keep his effort from rising well over the bar.
Alarmingly, but in an accurate reflection of the balance of play, that first Irish chance was also the last Irish chance until the 36th minute, when Seamus Coleman teed himself up for a volley which, though well-struck, was comfortably turned away for a corner by Nukri Revishvili.
For the rest of the time, Ireland were simply bereft of imagination, creativity and sustained pressure, let alone anything in the way of goal chances.
Coleman was endeavouring to make inroads up the right but, as against Scotland, his crossing repeatedly let him down, while on the other flank Brady was pegged back by Ucha Lobzhanidze, forcing the Norwich man into ever wider angles as he tried and failed to get the ball into the box. Nor was much of anything coming through the middle where Wes Hoolahan was too often and too easily muscled out of the play, the upshot of it all a reversion to long balls from deep for which the ever-willing Jon Walters challenged in the air or ran into the channels but with minimal return. And, after his early half-chance, Keane was practically a spectator as the service simply dried up.
By contrast, growing in confidence and happy to defend and then counter-attack in numbers, the Georgian team - individually far more comfortable on the ball than their Irish counterparts - were showing the hosts how to pass with precision and penetration, and even threatening Shay Given’s goal on more than one occasion.
It all made for a brutally grim first half for Ireland which boded nothing but ill for the second unless O’Neill was prepared to act fast to remedy the situation. His prescription was to wait no longer in replacing Keane with Shane Long, and the early signs were more encouraging, with the Irish finally attempting to quicken the pace and get bodies forward in numbers as the action resumed.
Coleman, after a one-two with Hoolahan, got a rare effort on target just short of the hour mark but, unlike Cyrus Christie in Faro was unable to make his finish with the outside of the boot count.
Then in quick succession, Hendrick had a shot batted away by Revishili, Walters almost made a flick of his head count and McCarthy failed to keep his shot down after the ‘keeper had punched clear, as the green shirts finally began to display the collective urgency that had been so lacking the first half, the crowd roaring its approval for this new, improved Ireland.
An appallingly mishit McCarthy effort after 66 minutes briefly dampened enthusiasm but, two minutes later, Ireland got the goal their transformative efforts deserved, Jeff Hendrick doing brilliantly to dance past three players into the box before sliding the ball across the face of the goal for Walters, despite being under pressure, to turn home.
Glenn Whelan, first harshly penalised for a free and then, even more punitively shown yellow for dissent – which rules him out for the game against Germany – was quickly followed into the book by James McClean whose wild challenge straight after coming off the bench for Hoolahan, also means he is suspended for the next game.
Long could have made the game safe in the 76th minute but failed to get the right contact on a driven ball across the box by the pumped-up McClean.
With seven minutes to go, and having emptied their bench, Georgia were reduced to 10 men when striker Levan Mchedlidze had to withdraw with a pulled hamstring and while, ominously, the Irish invited the visitors on for the game’s final phase, they were unable to spoil a night of wildly contrasting emotions for the home supporters, as McClean almost made it two at the death with a rasping drive.
Rep of Ireland:
Given, Coleman, O’Shea, Clark, Brady, Hendrick, Whelan, McCarthy, Hoolahan (McClean 75), Walters, Keane (Long 46).
Revishvili, Lobjanidze, Kvirkvelia, Amisulashvili, Navalovski, Kazaishvili (Papunashvili 64), Okriashvili, Kashia (Tsintsadze 76), Khizanishvili (Kenia 81), Kankava, Mchedlidze.
Istvan Vad (Hungary).
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