Ireland kept their World Cup hopes alive with a comfortable win over Moldova at the Aviva Stadium last night, which means Monday’s showdown in Cardiff against Wales will be a winner-takes-all clash.
Here are four of the main talking points from the boys in green’s 2-0 win in Dublin.
There was widespread excitement when both Scott Hogan and Sean Maguire were included in Martin O’Neill’s squad, but it was Daryl Murphy who stole the show on the night.
The towering 34 year old handed Ireland the dream start after just two minutes when he turned home Stephen Ward’s log throw in into the box with a low volley.
It was a poacher’s finish, even if the Moldova goalkeeper could have done better to keep out Murphy’s strike.
The Nottingham Forest striker then doubled Ireland’s lead in the 19th minute with a sublime header to finish off a wonderful team move. Wes Hoolahan picked out the marauding Stephen Ward with an exquisite cross-field ball, and Ward’s pinpoint cross found Murphy, who directed a superb looping header across goal back into the far corner.
The experienced striker was impressive throughout, and was deservedly named as man of the match.
“It was nice to score,” he told RTÉ Sport afterwards. “There was a bit of faith from the manager to start me in such a big game and I knew I had to produce and thankfully I took a few chances.”
Murphy also made an impact off the bench against Serbia, and on current form he should be Ireland’s number one striker for Monday’s visit to Cardiff.
In contrast to Murphy, Shane Long is in wretched form.
“Shane Long said to me on the way in that ‘he can’t buy a goal’,” Martin O’Neill revealed after last night’s qualifier.
The Tipperary native has only scored one goal in his last 24 appearances for club and country, and the Southampton striker squandered two glorious opportunities against Moldova, highlighting his lack of confidence.
The impressive Callum O’Dowda did brilliantly to beat his man and provide a cut back to Long inside the box, but the former Reading striker’s low shot was wide of the near post, with the goals at his mercy from 10 yards.
Such chances may come few and far between against Wales, and Ireland can’t afford to be wasteful in Cardiff with a play-off at stake.
Long is a fine player and has been a great servant to Ireland, but Murphy should get the nod up front if O’Neill elects to start with a solitary striker.
A debut for Maguire
There was raucous applause when Sean Maguire came off the bench to make his international debut.
It has been an incredible 12 months for the former Cork City striker, who has made an excellent start to life at Preston in the Championship since moving across the water.
The 23 year old looked tidy and energetic during his brief cameo after replacing Shane Long, but there was no dream debut goal for the prolific forward.
“It’s probably the best feeling of my life to this date, a proud moment for my family and for me of course,” he reflected afterwards.
“To get onto that pitch and finally make my first international cap was a dream come through… It was good to get a few touches, to get those five minutes. It’s hard to put into words. It’s just a big honour for me and my family.”
The poacher won’t start in Cardiff, but he could provide the Irish management team with a different option off the bench if a late goal is needed on Monday.
Let’s hope last night was the first of many caps for the Irish attacker.
“We shouldn’t die wondering”
As many expected, Ireland’s clash against Wales in Cardiff will decide everything.
Results in other groups mean that whoever comes out on top will make the play-offs, and Wales’ 1-0 win in Georgia last night (due to a fine strike by Tom Lawrence) means that Chris Coleman’s side remain a point clear of Ireland, giving them the edge.
If Serbia lose to Georgia at home and Ireland can pick up a win, the boys in green will qualify automatically for Russia.
The good news for Ireland is that O’Neill’s men didn’t pick up any injuries or suspensions in the routine win over Moldova, and Robbie Brady and James McClean are both available again after suspension.
Fringe players Daryl Murphy and Callum O’Dowda also impressed last night, giving O’Neill a selection headache ahead of Monday’s showdown, and Sean Maguire also made his international debut.
David Meyler has continued his excellent form, and Jeff Hendrick showed signs of his best form last night.
“It [the scenario ] reminds me of last year in the Euros when we went to Lille having to beat Italy to qualify for the last 16,” O’Neill told Sky Sports.
“It’s all on the line. We’ll go for it [against Cardiff on Monday] and we shouldn’t die wondering.”
It all comes down to Monday.