Daryl Murphy rises to keep Irish dreams alive
Ireland 2 Moldova 0
In a week that kicked off with the promotion of three young strikers as Martin O'Neill agreed a deal to look towards the future, a member of the old guard pointed Ireland on the way to a routine night's work at the Aviva.
Daryl Murphy turned 34 earlier this year and that age-profile means the Waterford man's name has featured in the ruminations after O'Neill's prediction that senior members of the panel will naturally drift away when Ireland's World Cup campaign draws to a close.
Yet there is still a sense that he is making up for lost time as he was exiled for the bulk of Giovanni Trapattoni's tenure. The same applies to 35-year-old Wes Hoolahan who was also prominent in the purposeful first-half display where Ireland broke from stereotype and asserted their dominance over an inferior side, courtesy of a Murphy brace.
That initiative was lost in a dull second half that drained some of the half-time optimism, with Ireland content to play the percentages when the restless crowd was crying out for more.
O'Neill said afterwards that a third Irish goal would have resulted in quicker changes but a risk-averse approach meant it never looked likely. He was wary that a freak concession might have applied unnecessary pressure.
The job was done, though, and the avoidance of injuries and suspensions appeared to be higher on the priority list than putting the foot on the pedal and running up a number.
Monday was on the mind and Hoolahan and Murphy were withdrawn with 12 minutes to go, although it remains to be seen if that is relevant with regard to Wales. The manager confirmed that Robbie Brady and James McClean will come back from suspension and go straight into the side.
Whatever happens, the outcome could mean more to Hoolahan and Murphy than any other members of this group. They desperately need Ireland's campaign to be prolonged.
Otherwise, there is a danger that the unremarkable dismissal of Moldova on an October's night in Dublin will be marked down as the last time they pulled on the green jersey in a competitive fixture on Irish soil.
There's a certain poignancy in that for Murphy given that his second-minute opener which relaxed the crowd was actually his first home goal for Ireland and his second in total after last September's equaliser in Serbia. The challenge now is go to Wales and ensure that the better moments from this campaign were all leading to something.
O'Neill will be reasonably satisfied with his night's work after the surprise announcement that he had agreed in principle to stick around for a third campaign in the hot-seat. With the stadium close to full, a performance that portrayed an image of health was required - and he got it for 45 minutes
But lording it over a Moldovan side that belongs on the basement of Group D does not exactly atone for the one-point-from-six return in the crucial September double-header that still hurts, especially in light of Serbia's loss in Austria that leaves Ireland two points off top spot in third.
Ireland tried to put it behind them and there was a good mix of experience and enthusiasm driving the impressive beginning. The selection of Callum O'Dowda was vindicated by a display rich in promise.
"He's growing in confidence and getting more playing time at club level has helped him as well," said O'Neill, who has always rated the Bristol City winger.
Stand-in skipper David Meyler and Jeff Hendrick make for an energetic midfield, although this fixture was open at times so it's hard to reach a firm conclusion on that union.
And there was a late cameo for Seanie Maguire that lifted the crowd from the slumber and capped his remarkable year; O'Neill waited until seven minutes from the end with Shane Long withdrawn after failing to end a goal drought stretching 24 games and 237 days.
That is the one major worry for O'Neill as the Southampton man appears bereft of confidence in front of goal. He missed a sitter in each half here, but there were no consequences apart from the impact on his confidence.
Afterwards, he told the Derryman that he couldn't buy a goal at the moment. "Who knows," said O'Neill when asked directly if Murphy's success put him ahead of Long in the pecking order. "Shane had great chances that you would think he would normally have taken."
McClean for O'Dowda is a natural swap but the Brady dilemma will likely revolve around whether Hoolahan plays or if the diamond that was deployed here is broken up.
Unlike Long, Murphy has been in the goalscoring habit of late - he has six already in the Championship this season after penning a three-year deal with Nottingham Forest - and the difference was evident.
He was in the right place in the second minute when a long throw from Stephen Ward was helped into his direction by Shane Duffy with an instinctive swing of the left boot doing the rest.
Number two followed before 20 minutes had elapsed. On this occasion, Hoolahan had the space to aim a 30-yard cross-field ball into the direction of Ward who gained control and sent in a delivery that the head of Murphy skilfully steered into the far corner of the net while running away from goal.
That was game over with Long's woes the sub-plot. The yellow shirts had their moments on the counter and a stunning stop from Darren Randolph was required to deny a left-foot volley from Sergiu Platica.
Both goalkeepers had little to do in a second half where the lowlight was Long screwing the ball wide of an open goal when an O'Dowda shot was blocked in his direction.
Moldova had spells of possession but Ireland - Hoolahan aside - didn't exactly strain themselves to retain possession until Harry Arter was sent into ruffle feathers and he managed to pick up a yellow before getting in an injury-time skirmish with Alexandru Gatcan that resulted in a red card for the Moldovan.
The game was already over before the shouting. A 90-minute tour de force will be required in Cardiff.