Match Report: McClean's double saves Ireland blushes
Moldova 1 Ireland 3
The first ever meeting between these nations gave the locals a taste of how Ireland like to get things done. There's always a twist.
Martin O'Neill's side completed a six-point week after dominating this game for long periods, yet a daft concession before half-time added unnecessary stress to what should have been a routine test.
Relief was the prevailing emotion when James McClean added the decisive goal with 21 minutes remaining and he quickly completed a brace to put a comfortable look on the scoreline.
O'Neill was in chirpy form in the post-match press conference that followed a slightly chippy RTE interview, with the 64-year-old satisfied with the week's work and happier with the overall display compared to Thursday's struggle past Georgia.
The full time outcome did reflect the balance of play without quite telling the full story of a tense second-half where Ireland threatened to drop points to the 161st ranked team in the world.
Moldova will finish bottom of the group.
Eventually, Ireland steadied the ship and O'Neill was impressed that they didn't panic when Shane Long was lost to injury, thus exposing a dearth of attacking options.
"It was important to stay patient," he said.
"We stayed with it and scored two great goals. We dominated the game and deserved to win."
Irish fans were singing about top spot in the dying minutes and this sets up an intriguing encounter in Vienna next month after Austria's loss in Serbia backed up O'Neill's view that a point in Belgrade will turn out to be valuable. Serbia and Ireland now sit joint top.
He already had reason to feel vindicated before kick-off as Georgia followed on from their strong performance in Dublin with a draw in Cardiff to halt Wales' momentum.
"That's something for you to look at," he said, with a pointed reference to what he believed was an overreaction to Thursday's uninspiring affair.
"Georgia can actually play the game. That came as no surprise to me.
"But it's too early to call things after three games. It's lunacy."
Still, he will know that avoiding defeat in Austria would set up an intriguing 2017, with the focus shifting to Dublin.
This was a trip into the unknown for Ireland, but there was nothing intimidating about it.
The Moldovan public has been worn down by a brutal run of results at home including every Chisinau encounter in the Euro 2016 campaign and the 10,000 capacity Stadionul Zimbru was nowhere near full.
Coach Igor Dobrovolski spent a portion of his pre-match press conference discussing a 'rat' in the camp that was feeding information to the local media and he refused to answer questions afterwards.
However, it was leaks in the defence that hurt the under-fire coach here as Ireland found a way ahead inside two minutes.
Unsurprisingly, the recalled Wes Hoolahan was the source of inspiration, collecting a McClean tee-up and releasing Long with a crisp and accurate pass that was matched by the finish. For the Southampton striker, it relieved the frustration of an 18-match run without a goal for club and country.
It's the third time this year that Ireland have scored before some fans have taken their seats, but, unlike France and Serbia, a victory would follow - even if they somehow managed to relinquish that early lead.
Moldova huffed and puffed and competed reasonably well in the physical stakes, but they don't have much more in their locker.
Ireland were on top with Hoolahan conducting and Seamus Coleman a threat from right full and they might have extended their lead before the interval with McClean snatching at a couple of chances.
Hoolahan missed narrowly from a James McCarthy centre and a free-kick from Glenn Whelan was blocked.
However, instead of going in with a cushion, Ireland lost their way and forfeited their advantage.
The criticism against Georgia was that they were caught too deep and the combination of Whelan and McCarthy meant there was a danger of falling into that trap.
Ireland, though, were in control and pushed up to the extent that they managed to get caught by a routine pass that exposed a high line. Shane Duffy stepped up and moved out of position, leaving a gap that allowed Igor Bugaev to gallop behind him and show greater speed to advance from the halfway line into the box before slotting calmly past Darren Randolph.
Duffy was poor, but O'Neill pointed out it was a team effort.
"It was a real lapse of concentration and not just Shane," he said,
"We have the ball three or four yards from their touchline and there was less than two minutes on the clock. If you lose the ball there, it should be okay."
Suddenly, the locals were in love with football life again. The decibel levels grew after the restart when Randolph struggled to command his area and half chances gave the away end some anxious moments.
When Long pulled up with what looked to be a hamstring injury, Ireland were in crisis territory, as the bench was dominated by centre halves and inexperienced attackers.
Callum O'Dowda was summoned for a competitive debut with Walters pushed through the middle and McClean switched right.
Moldova were in giddy territory and it showed as they dropped further back.
As the game entered the final quarter, they were punished as James McCarthy was given an abundance of space to line up a shot that struck Walters and fell into the path of McClean who calmly slotted home.
Crucially, Ireland pressed on to remove suspense instead of sitting back and Hoolahan trickery released Coleman for a deft chip that McClean converted with his left foot.
That was mission accomplished, with the only late stress for O'Neill emanating from a scrap involving Walters, McClean and some Moldovans with the Irish boss helping to function as peacemaker.
They had already won the battle that mattered.
Moldova: Calancea, Bordian, Posmac, Armas ( 37), Bolohan; Gatcan, Cojocari; Andronic (Sidorenco 84), Zasavitchi (Cebotaru 62) , Dedov; Bugaev
Ireland: Randolph, Coleman, Clark, Duffy, Ward; Whelan, McCarthy (Meyler 80); Walters, Hoolahan (O'Kane 86), McClean; Long (O'Dowda 63)