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Thursday 8 December 2016

Die hard McClean emerges as cool green hero

Irish recover from poor spell to grind out valuable victory

James McClean celebrates the first of his two goals in the win over Moldova in Chisinau last night.
James McClean celebrates the first of his two goals in the win over Moldova in Chisinau last night.
Irish players celebrate at the end of the Group D win over Moldova. Photo: Reuters

Looks like we will have to get used to one stark fact. This Republic of Ireland side are not going to deliver champagne football on the road to Russia 2018.

But in grinding out a result for the third time in three games, Martin O'Neill's men have shown that the stuff that drives them is not always pleasing on the eye but the job gets done, and a win next month away to an Austrian side which has now leaked six goals in three qualifiers could be, and should be, the objective.

Ireland got out of jail at home to Georgia last week thanks to Seamus Coleman and it was another League of Ireland export from the north-west who saved what would have been some serious blushes, had Ireland been held in Chisinau, as was feared for a long spell in a nervy night.

This game ebbed and flowed, from an early lead for Ireland which appeared to set up a comfy away win, only for a brave Moldova to claw their way back in, get level and threaten to win, but two goals in six minutes from McClean won the points.

The road to Russia is a long one but with Wales and Austria dropping points they'd have expected to bank, this unpretty but gritty Irish side can stay in the race, McClean's hard work underpinning this win.

In the build-up to this game we'd heard the same line from certain members of the Irish camp, that Moldova was one of those: A Difficult Place To Go.

It's not, nothing of the sort, as Moldova had not won a home competitive game in over three years and lost their previous six home qualifiers.

With the national team, we tend to talk ourselves down or build ourselves up too much and our lack of talent.

Moldova? Only three of the players selected in a side much-changed (five players dropped) from the one which lost so poorly at home to Serbia four days earlier earn their crust outside of Moldova, including one lad who togs out in the Russian second division.

But just as Ireland have done against sides like Germany, who are expected not to lose to the Pixie-Heads, Moldova kept their heads when they could have dropped after conceding that early goal to Long, and got back into the game.

When Shane Long ended that too-long barren run of games without a goal on two minutes, this was set for Ireland to go and finish things off before Moldova had time to regroup. Chances fell to the boys in green but shooting was so off that keeper Nicolae Calancea, brought into the side as the keeper who conceded seven times in the previous two games was dropped, was rarely troubled.

James McClean had chances but for one effort, his final attempt on goal was more suited to Celtic Park, the GAA ground in Derry, than his old stomping ground of the Brandywell, McClean way over the bar.

On 20 minutes, Seamus Coleman and Wes Hoolahan worked hard to carve out a chance but it fizzled away, while Glenn Whelan was off-target with a shot on 29 minutes, set up by Hoolahan.

There was a lack of urgency about that Irish attack, the side looking more like a team who had a 3-0 lead with the job done rather than a slender 1-0 advantage.

That cost Ireland, cost them dearly, when the away side switched off just before the break, Igor Bugaev scoring the ninth goal of his 45-cap career, having caught Shane Duffy too far from his safety zone and Bugaev had the pace to beat Duffy and the skill to beat Darren Randolph with a well-taken strike, practically the last act of the first half.

The Irish squad revealed after Thursday's sloppy win at home to Georgia that Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane had given them a "rollicking" at half time and they responded by scoring what proved to be the winner five minutes after the restart. O'Neill needed more harsh words at the half time break last night as this, simply, was not good enough and all knew it.

McClean has his critics and his final ball could be better, but for effort and heart, he was not found wanting. Stabbing home from a James McCarthy cross on 69 minutes he got Ireland in front and added a third, badly needed goal six minutes later.

Job done, better will be needed in Vienna but the champagne can come later.

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