Ireland whet appetite with spring in step O'Neill and Keane era begins in style
IRELAND 3 LATVIA 0
IF the mission was to give intrigued fans that have emerged from the woodwork another reason to come back to the Aviva Stadium, this was a job well done.
Latvia's mediocrity makes it hard to utter definitive statements about corners being turned, but the approach to this encounter certainly made it clear that Martin O'Neill intends to do things differently to Giovanni Trapattoni.
After a week dominated by discussion of the management team's personality, this was the opportunity for the personality of his team to reveal itself and the initial signs are encouraging.
With an emphasis on pressing and passing, the reaction of the heartening crowd of 37,100 at the final whistle would suggest they were satisfied with the evening's entertainment and that is important for the FAI as they look to shift tickets during the long wait to the resumption of competitive action next September.
"I'm absolutely delighted," said O'Neill, "I accept the fact there will be sterner tests ahead but it was nice to win, and nice to get a few goals. I thought some of our play was terrific."
To add to the good vibes, Greece's win over Romania in Piraeus also means that Ireland will enter February's Euro 2016 qualifying draw as second seeds. But in the short term, all O'Neill must concern himself with is his own lot, and this exercise gave him the chance to assess the quality at his disposal; or remind himself of it in the case of James McClean and Aiden McGeady, who look set to be prominent in this era and had an extra spring in their step here.
They were the liveliest members of a team with six changes from the side that finished Noel King's caretaker adventure by defeating Kazakhstan. His most significant statement was selecting Wes Hoolahan – a standout in training – in the hole behind Robbie Keane as Ireland operated without a traditional target man.
It placed the onus on keeping the ball on the deck, with the wingers prominent figures in the early exchanges; McGeady frequently cut inside and even wound up next to McClean in one first-half movement which illustrated the more flexible nature of the set-up. Derryman O'Neill had also encouraged his team to press high and that was a noticeable feature, with central midfielders Glenn Whelan and James McCarthy engaged in the effort. There was another break from the old template with Whelan dropping short to collect a kickout from Keiren Westwood.
Of course, the quality of the opposition also dictated the approach, with the Latvians, ranked 117th in the world, content to defend en masse for large periods and allow the hosts to dictate, with Hoolahan the conductor. But the Baltic nation rode their luck from a series of Irish set-pieces, with a McCarthy effort accidentally blocked by John O'Shea and Keane denied from a quick free, before eventually falling behind in the 21st minute.
The pressing paid off with McClean hassling the Latvians into giving the ball away, and a corner the eventual consequence. This time, a more straightforward approach did the trick, with McGeady's delivery flicked on by McClean into the path of the predatory Keane, who cleverly flicked home his 62nd international goal.
Number 63 might have followed before the break with the LA Galaxy man unable to get a proper connection on a Stephen Ward cross that McCarthy had steered into the danger zone.
That move was started by a slick pass to Ward from Marc Wilson, who was selected as O'Shea's centre-half partner, meaning that the Stoke man has started Ireland's last three internationals in different positions after stints in central midfield and at left-back.
They were rarely tested defensively, with the spotlight elsewhere, particularly on McClean. He nearly added a second from a break which was all his own work, weaving through maroon shirts into a promising position but his right foot let him down when it came to taking aim.
Latvia's best spell, if you could call it that, came after the resumption but they only had one speculative attempt to show for it and the green shirts quickly seized control again.
Seamus Coleman was slightly subdued before the interval but tormented the Latvians as the second 45 developed. His invention created another threatening situation with Hoolahan teeing up McClean, who again skied over with his bad foot.
Trapattoni was exasperated by the lack of goals provided from the flanks during his tenure and if the Italian was watching, he would surely have shook his head at Ireland's second. McGeady, who is frustrated by his poor strike rate in a green shirt, nabbed his third in 62 appearances with a daisycutter from outside the box that flashed past Andris Vanins. But the genesis of the 27-year-old's magic moment was Whelan pushing up the park and forcing a Latvian mistake.
O'Neill was preparing changes at that point, with Andy Reid, Jon Walters and Shane Long sent into the fray and all three made their mark as Ireland extended the advantage. Reid and Walters combined to release the overlapping Coleman and his searching cross was converted by the grateful Long. The goal of the game had the crowd off their feet.
It signalled further switches, with Anthony Stokes, Kevin Doyle and Paul Green given 10 minutes to make an impression. Only then did the dreaded Mexican wave rear its tedious head, proof that minds were occupied elsewhere beforehand, which can only be a good thing.
Buoyed by the slick manner of the Long goal, the locals finished on the front foot and on another night might have applied a greater sheen to the scoreline, with Reid denied twice from distance and Stokes almost breaking his international duck with a dart inside from the left and a menacing shot.
He was inches away from getting it right and, like the rest of the subs, will be angling for a lengthier role in Poznan on Tuesday, a fixture that should give O'Neill a better handle of where this team stands.
Quiet for long spells, but the winger showed his dazzling technique and long-range accuracy. After setting up the first goal, he scored the second in style.
Game at a glance
Man of the match
James McClean flicked on a corner from McGeady at the near post and Robbie Keane was in the right place to finish.
More creativity, control and shots on goal must be demanded from the midfield as they failed to dominate their rivals.
Swedish referee Anders Ekberg was whistle-happy, blowing for 12 free-kicks in the first half.
Martin O'Neill's tactics were spot on as his 4-4-1-1 system was well-balanced and designed to keep Latvia under pressure.
There were plenty of empty seats. Still, the crowd stayed upbeat on a cold night – even doing a 'Poznan' in the second half.
Battered and almost moss-like in areas, the pitch didn't help play flow.
Ireland 10 (6 first half)
Latvia 11 (6 first half)
Ireland 5 (3)
Latvia 3 (2)
Ireland 1 (1)
Latvia 3 (1)
Shots on target
Ireland 10 (3)
Latvia 0 (0)
Shots off target
Ireland 10 (4)
Latvia 2 (1)
Latvia 3 (Gabovs 56, Bulvitis 85, Rode 90+2)
Red Cards: None