Walters settles nerves as Irish scrape vital win
Ireland 1 Georgia 0
Published 08/09/2015 | 02:30
This dull win for Ireland, combined with news of an entertaining defeat for Scotland, leaves Martin O'Neill in a position that was the best-case scenario coming into this week.
The laboured success is unlikely to have dramatically boosted the confidence of a public that wants a little more bang for their buck but the manager's jubilant reaction at the final whistle was in keeping with his pre-match assertion that winning at all costs was the sole mission.
Ireland are now four points ahead of Scotland heading into next month's concluding double-header with Germany and a Poland side that can wrap up third place for O'Neill if they can win in Glasgow.
The permutations will be analysed in depth, yet all Ireland can control is what happens in their own matches and the flow of this encounter will have given O'Neill food for thought.
Aside from Seamus Coleman's anticipated return in place of Cyrus Christie, he made no changes from the team that did the business in Gibraltar.
However, it was a half-time reshuffle that sacrificed Robbie Keane and introduced Shane Long that helped instigate an improvement that eventually wore down a dogged Georgian operation.
Afterwards, the manager admitted that the performances will have to better in four weeks' time, acknowledging that he was disappointed by the "tentative" first-half effort.
The Derryman had said on the eve of the game that it wouldn't make any difference to his players if the stadium was half-full and the low attendance for a competitive qualifier of significance tested that theory.
After a sloppy opening summed up by an attempted Robbie Brady crossfield pass going out for a Georgia corner, it was Ireland who carved the first major opening. Brady found Wes Hoolahan, selected at the tip of the midfield diamond again, and he engineered a one-two with Jon Walters and clipped to the far post where Robbie Keane fired over. The unmarked James McCarthy was screaming for the pass.
It didn't set the tone for what followed as Georgian confidence was emphasised by a weaving run through a static midfield by Valeri Kazaishvili, the slayer of Scotland, which culminated with Italian-based attacker Levan Mchedlidze scuffing a shot straight at Shay Given with the Irish rearguard badly stretched.
The natives were restless. When Given was given time to walk up the pitch and send a punt in the direction of Walters that came to nothing, the frustration was audible. It was just too one-dimensional and, for periods, Georgia were actually setting the tempo with Kazaishvili, Tornike Okriashvili and skipper Jaba Kankava comfortable in possession.
"I thought we lacked energy in the first half and consequently created very little which is a bit of a worry," said O'Neill.
Eight minutes before the break, the punters were given reason to rise in their seats as Seamus Coleman controlled a headed Georgian clearance and executed a right-footed volley that was acrobatically stopped by Nukri Revishvili.
Ireland did try and press in the period before the interval, but a change was required to take the Georgian defence out of their comfort zone with the hosts unable to make the ball stick in the final third and invite McCarthy and Jeff Hendrick to break.
The half-time whistle was greeted with about the same enthusiasm as the announcement at a wedding that somebody is about to say grace, and O'Neill realised that he had to withdraw Keane.
"It was a difficult decision," he said. "Robbie has been very terrific but he's not getting any younger." One suspects he will be kept in reserve from this point onwards.
The bustling Long added a sense of urgency to an Irish display that moved up the gears. Georgia, by contrast, looked to be running out of ideas as the pendulum swung.
Coleman gave Rekishvili something else to think about with a toe-poke from a Hoolahan pass before Hendrick forced the Georgian netminder into a save and Walters nearly met a Glenn Whelan centre with the right connection. McCarthy then overclubbed when an unconvincing punch gave the Everton midfielder the freedom to pick a spot.
At this juncture, Ireland had 10 Premier League performers and one Championship operator on the pitch and it was Hendrick, the solitary man from the second tier, that stepped up to seize the day.
He wandered to the left flank, near his old St Kevin's Boys pal Robbie Brady, and threw a few shapes to break the Georgian unit and scamper into the box before executing a pull-back that was converted courtesy of an intuitive run and flick from Walters.
The relief was felt around the ground and the Aviva patrons, scarred by bad memories of sitting back on narrow leads and paying the penalty, implored the troops to march on in search of a second.
Whelan was in tune with the memo - he was one of Ireland's best players on the night with a daft booking for dissent that keeps him out of Germany the only error - and dispossessed a Georgian centre-half. When the Stoke man reasoned that he lacked the pace to complete the job, he teed up James McClean for a cross that was too lively for Long to control.
McClean, as usual, had made his presence felt since he was introduced for Hoolahan and unfortunately his desire to impress instantly earned a yellow that will also rule him out when the world champions come to town.
"That (tackle) was a needless one because we need the players; if we'd thought about going in a different direction tactically then James would have been a big part of that," stressed O'Neill.
There were a few nervy moments for the crowd as Ireland did drop off somewhat as the finishing line came into sight, temporarily ceding the ball despite Georgia being reduced to ten men by injury. But Given remained untested with the defence keeping their discipline and it was McClean who came closest to giving this encounter a second goal with a left-footed thunderbolt that was kept out superbly by Revishvili.
The officials added an extra three minutes and Ireland managed to see them out without much stress.
"We've a long way to go," cautioned O'Neill, who is preparing for the eventuality where Scotland take full points from their final two matches.
"We have two very difficult matches and we need to find a win. Tonight, we made it difficult for ourselves in the first half but our players have great determination and came back very strongly in the second half. It's still in our own hands."