By Glenn Mason, Aviva Stadium
Republic of Ireland 1-0 Georgia
Jon Walters scored the only goal of the game as the Republic of Ireland kept alive their hopes of automatic qualification for Euro 2016 with a hard-fought win at the Aviva Stadium.
Ireland laboured for long spells but the ever-willing Walters made a crucial intervention midway through the second half when he turned in Jeff Hendrick’s low cross at the near post.
Walters’ goal came in a middle of a busy period of Irish pressure, which was much-needed after an uninspiring first half performance, leading to the replacement of captain Robbie Keane at half-time.
The win delivered the six points that Martin O’Neill wanted from this month’s double-header and means Ireland are in control of their own destiny in the group.
Scotland’s defeat to Germany in Glasgow puts Ireland four points ahead in the race for third place and a play-off spot, while Poland remain two points ahead in second place meaning automatic qualification remains a possibility.
However, Ireland will need to show a lot more in next month’s crucial qualifiers against Germany and Poland if they are to have any chance of going straight through to the finals in France.
O’Neill has been accused of tinkering too often with his starting XI as he tries to find his best team, but there was just the one expected change from the 4-0 win over Gibraltar.
Seamus Coleman returned at right-back as he recovered from the hamstring strain that kept him out of Friday’s encounter.
Georgia, meanwhile, also made one change from the team that upset Scotland in Tbilisi. Former Rangers and Blackburn Rovers defender Zurab Khizanishvili started in five-man midfield instead of Jano Ananzidze.
Wes Hoolahan was the one bright spark for Ireland in the opening stages and, predictably, it was he who created the first opening for O’Neill’s team.
The Norwich man found the space to play a quick one-two with Walters in the box before crossing to Keane at the back post, but the captain could not keep his effort down.
It would be another half an hour before Ireland created a meaningful chance. From there on, Georgia were the better team, or least worse.
Valeri Kazaishvili, who scored the goal against Scotland, was a threat again here early on. His sharp movement and passing were causing a number of problems for Ireland.
On 11 minutes, he picked out Levan Mchedlidze as he raced through on goal. The tame shot did not match the quality of the pass or the run and the ball was easily gathered by Shay Given.
Georgia looked more comfortable on the ball as they moved out from the back through midfield without ever seriously threatening, while Ireland were short of pace, ideas and confidence when they had possession.
There were also a few shaky movements at the back as Georgia applied pressure and closed down the space.
Approaching the break, Coleman produced a spectacular effort that tested Nukri Revishvili and livened the crowd. Robbie Brady’s cross was only half-cleared and Coleman teed the ball up for himself and let fly, forcing the keeper to parry the dipping ball over the bar.
The hustle and bustle that Ireland’s attack needed arrived at half-time as the ineffective Keane was replaced by Shane Long. It could signal the end of Keane’s long run as Ireland’s number one striker.
Whether news of Scotland holding Germany at half-time had got through to the players or not, Ireland were certainly livelier after the break and posed more of an attacking threat.
The visitors’ keeper Revishvili was a busy man as he kept out efforts from Coleman and Glenn Whelan, while also parrying a deflected Hendrick strike and holding onto Walters’s glancing header.
However, he was less assured under the high ball and flapped at a number of balls into the box. One such attempted clearance dropped to James McCarthy but he wasted the opportunity by firing over.
Ireland’s pressure paid off with just over 20 minutes to go. Hendrick skipped in from the left wing and danced through several Georgian tackles. His low cross picked out Walters at the front post and the Stoke man bundled the ball over the line.
The huge Lansdowne roar that greeted the goal was as much in relief as excitement.
Whelan, who picked up a booking ruling him out of the Germany game, had a chance to wrap up the game when he stole the ball in midfield and burst through. Strangely, he chose to cut back and pass to substitute James McClean and the chance had gone.
There were some anxious cries from the crowd as Ireland sat back and invited Georgia on, but, in truth, they never tested Given in the latter stages as they were reduced to ten men through injury.
McClean, who also misses the Germany game through suspension went close to adding a second in injury-time as he cut inside on his left before shooting. The shot dipped and swerved and Revishvili looked relieved to get a strong hand to it.
The win will do little to quell the critical voices around the team and management, but a place in the championship next summer is still within reach.
Republic of Ireland: Shay Given; Seamus Coleman, John O’Shea, Ciaran Clark, Robbie Brady; Glenn Whelan, James McCarthy, Jeff Hendrick; Wes Hoolahan (James McClean 75) Jon Walters, Robbie Keane (Shane Long h/t)
Georgia: Nukri Revishvili; Ucha Lobzhanidze, Solomon Kverkvelia, Alexsandr Amisulashvili, Giorgi Navalovsky; Guram Kashia (Mate Tsintsadze 76), Zurab Khizanishvili (Levan Kenia 81), Tornike Okriashvili Jaba Kankava, Valeri Kazaishvili (Giorgi Papunashvili 65); Levan Mchedlidze