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Thursday 19 October 2017

Bearded warrior leads way

Victory sets up 'Manic Monday' night to remember in Cardiff

Roy Keane and Martin O’Neill during last night’s clash
Roy Keane and Martin O’Neill during last night’s clash
Rep of Ireland’s Daryl Murphy celebrates after scoring his goal during last night’s World Cup Qualifier Group D match the Aviva Stadium

"Russian roulette is not the same without a gun…" - Lady Gaga

It looked as if Poker Face was Martin O'Neill's guilty pleasure tune going into the most dramatic weekend of his career last night.

With an extension to his FAI management contract in his back pocket, Martin smiled inscrutably when asked if the timing of the deal announcement might impact on his team's performance.

"John wanted me to continue on in the job," he said. "We qualified for the Euros. We're still in the mix here for this competition. I don't think it has any impact at all."

Personal contract concerns out of the equation, Martin knew his objective.

"We have to find ourselves winning at the end of the game. It's really simple…."

Simple? Yeah, we heard one before Martin.

But then Martin knew this was not Brazil.

We'd beaten Moldova 3-1 away last year.

And our visitors had managed just two draws, both against Georgia, so far in these qualifiers.

Besides, with all those shaggy beards in the squad, Moldova probably were intimidated, and imagining they were playing a bunch of cod liver oil and porter swilling hard men who'd just rowed in from the stormy seas in currachs looking for a fight.

One minute and 46 seconds later the Moldova keeper Ilie Cebanu was picking the ball out of the back of the net as the Ireland team celebrated a sequence of play which saw a huge Stephen Ward throw sail high into area and connect with the boot of Daryl Murphy.

Like a fisherman attempting to grasp a slippery eel, the Moldova 'keeper watched as the ball slithered over the line. As Murphy ran his fingers through his beard, Martin O'Neill swigged from a bottle on the sideline.

That would have been water. Not fish oil or emulsion of teeth'n'bones, the sort of thing you might expect these committed warriors in green to have for breakfast.

Why else would Jeff Hendrick be able to shrug off a tackle that saw him on the deck in the opening seconds of the match clutching his ankle in agony.

Moldova flattered to deceive.

In the first half they looked comfortable on the ball and strung some neat passes together. But ultimately it was school-yard fantasy stuff, when faced with the realpolitik of Ireland's full-blooded approach.

Playing like their future career prospects were at stake, Ireland showed a mix of ingenuity and determination that negated Moldovan aspiration and condemned them to yet another defeat.

The three points earned are essential to Ireland's case. But the real test, the final test, comes on Monday night in Wales.

Decimated

Last night, despite the squad being decimated by a mixture of injuries and cards, O'Neill's men never looked threatened, even though Darren Randolph had to make a dramatic save on 27 minutes when his strong right hand tipped the a scorching long-range shot from Sergiu Platica over the bar for a corner.

Apart from putting in an industrious shift, Murphy sealed his Man of the Match performance with a second splendid goal on 19 minutes.

It came from an impressive period of Irish play when Wes Hoolohan astutely dispatched a long pass out into space on the left wing where it was controlled by an alert Stephen Ward, who sent a swift cross towards the back post.

Murphy rose like a bearded river god to head the ball into the top far corner past the outstretched arms of the keeper.

'There are no easy games at this level' is a phrase that's regularly trotted out.

But Ireland's confident assured display last night seemed to debunk that notion.

Still comfortably in control in the second half, O'Neill brought on there subs and, with Harry Arter and Sean Maguire, added to the team's quota of beards.

Aiden McGeady replaced Hoolahan.

Making his debut, former League of Ireland star Seán Maguire got a welcoming manly hug from Shane Long who made way for the Preston North End forward.

Tipp native Long must have wondered if someone had put a hex on him last night.

Of the number of goal chances the 30-year old had, the right foot shot that skimmed the post on 61 minutes seemed to be the most gilt-edged.

Ireland could have won with a higher score last night. But ultimately it wouldn't have made any difference.

Right now, we're looking for a superhuman winning performance on Monday.

In spite of his eccentric ad-hoc starting elevens in this competition, Martin O'Neill has success in his grasp.

As Callum O'Dowda put it after last night's match: "Simple as that, really."

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