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Thursday 19 October 2017

Job is done but real task yet to come in Wales

R of Ireland 2 Moldova 0

The Republic of Ireland’s Callum O’Dowda competes with Moldova’s Petru Racu during their Group D match at the Aviva Stadium last night. Photo: Sportsfile
The Republic of Ireland’s Callum O’Dowda competes with Moldova’s Petru Racu during their Group D match at the Aviva Stadium last night. Photo: Sportsfile

Now comes the hard part.

As Moldova were dispatched by Ireland, though not with the ease that a 2-0 scoreline suggests as the home side struggled to gain possession for long spells of the second half, the Irish players and their manager need to put aside this win and do better, a lot better, in front of a packed and passion-filled Cardiff City Stadium on Monday night.

The Moldovans, backed by 500 of their own fans (which was a record for their away support) were put to the sword by Ireland last night, the Irish cause helped, of course, by that early goal (106 seconds) from Daryl Murphy which didn't give those nerves a chance to infect the home side and support.

After an imperfect, sloppy and unsatisfactory run of results and performances in the last four qualifiers, this was as close (on paper) as it gets to perfect for Martin O'Neill: home win, clean sheet, no injuries.

And the huge reception for Sean Maguire when he came off the bench for his debut, the first Kilkenny native to win a senior cap, brought back memories of the same fáilte which greeted a young James McClean.

Confidence

But concerns did emerge from the win: Shane Long's confidence has clearly been hit by his goal famine and a goal, any goal, would have been a big boost to him (and Ireland) ahead of that test in Cardiff, where opposing defenders will not be as generous as Moldova were last night.

And while the clean sheet was welcome, the sight of Moldova owning the ball for long spells in a dreadful second half should also serve a note of caution, though we can only hope that Wes Hoolahan has enough in the tank, and the faith of his manager, to start once again on Monday.

Moldova went down to yet another defeat and one of the main talking points from the evening's football was that Wales, without their talisman Gareth Bale, did what Ireland failed to do: went to Georgia and won.

The players in green did their part last night with the 2-0 win over Moldova as O'Neill's system, two strikers fed by a midfield diamond, worked well at times. But that system, and the energy levels of an Ireland side which had five players over the age of 30, will face a much bigger test in Cardiff.

O'Neill has some big calls to make for Monday's game, particularly with Robbie Brady and James McClean available again after suspension, and how they can be fitted back into a side which did quite well in their absence last night.

The other ponderable for the Irish boss, fresh from agreeing a new two-year deal, was the age gap: can players like Hoolahan (35) and Murphy (34) start in two games in the space of four days?

But Murphy made a very strong case last night with his display. He was an unused sub the last time Ireland played in Wales in a competitive game, back in 2007 when Don Givens temporarily took the reins.

But he could now prove to be pivotal when Ireland head back to Cardiff on Monday.

Some of the players in the Irish side last night needed a lift due to some choppy waters at club level (Long's lack of goals, Callum O'Dowda's struggle to get game time for Bristol City) but the win, the clean sheet and the return from suspension of McClean and Brady breeds hope.

But only if O'Neill picks the right team and that has to include a starting role for Hoolahan.

Moldova came into this game at a real low ebb, Igor Dobrovolski's side making no impression in this group, the away side naming just nine subs on the bench (they are allowed to have 12).

Other small nations from the old USSR have made a fair stab at qualification in recent campaigns as Estonia and Armenia qualified for, or at least had a sniff at, the play-offs, but Moldova have been awful.

And they were given no time to pose any sort of threat to Ireland last night, with the home side in front before two minutes had elapsed.

It was another set-piece which yielded the goal, Stephen Ward's long throw flicked on by the head of Ciaran Clark and Murphy was left loose in the box to stab home only the second goal of his international career, and the first goal at home.

The goal fed confidence into the home side as they took a firm grip on the game. On 12 minutes, O'Dowda went close with a shot after a well-worked move and three minutes later the Bristol City man did really well to move into a dangerous position and pull the ball back for Shane Long, but his right-footed shot was wide of the target, only threatening the water bottles sitting outside of Ilie Cebanu's goal.

On 19 minutes it was 2-0 to the home side, Murphy again and this time using his head. This goal was one to admire, a superb cross-field pass by Hoolahan gifting the ball to Ward, his cross left Murphy with a bit of work to do but the veteran timed his header well and nodded home his second of the night.

Famine

It should have been 3-0 on 23 minutes, Long again being deserted by the the finish he needs to end his goal famine, now a 24-game barren run.

Hendrick was the orchestrator of this move with a powerful run from midfield and he set up Long but the effort was saved.

In the odd position of being firmly in control at home, Ireland seemed to stand off and Moldova gained some confidence.

On 27 minutes their forward Sergiu Platica tested Randolph with a well-struck effort, Randolph had to be alert again three minutes later when a slack back pass from captain Meyler put the keeper under pressure, and soon afer that the Moldovans tried again, their main main, Serie A player Artur Ionita, forcing a save from the Irish keeper.

The second half was a damp squib, only livened up by the spark from debutant Maguire off the bench and an injury-time red card for Alexandru Gatcan, for a head-butt on sub Harry Arter.

So job done, but a much bigger task awaits in Wales.

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