Daryl Murphy’s brace kept Ireland’s World Cup ambitions alive as Martin O’Neill’s side enjoyed a facile 2-0 victory over Moldova in their penultimate World Cup qualifier at the Aviva Stadium.
It took the Nottingham Forest forward less than two minutes to give Ireland the lead at the packed Lansdowne Road venue, the Waterford man swivelling in the box to volley home from close range, following a well-worked long throw from the left.
Ireland’s attacking intentions remained crystal clear and O’Neill’s side set out to double the lead with the visitors struggling to play their way out of their own half.
And that second goal should have arrived in the 15th minute.
Again the play came from the left as Stephen Ward and Wes Hoolahan combined well before the latter slipped the ball inside to the arriving Callum O’Dowda, making his first competitive start for Ireland.
A composed O’Dowda took a moment, looked up and squared an inch-perfect ball across goal to the unmarked Shane Long, but the Southampton striker opted for precision over pace and slid the ball the wrong side of the post.
But it was only a matter of time, such was Ireland’s dominance, and four minutes later, Murphy was on hand again to grab his second, this time with his head.
The most simple of three-man moves, but simply sublime as Hoolahan’s cross-field ball found Ward marauding down the left wing. One touch, before delivering a fine ball at pace, arrowing at the tall target of Murphy in the middle.
The header, just as beautiful as Hoolahan’s initial ball, was both elegant and powerful, as Murphy guided the ball back across the keeper, eventually lodging in the top corner of the net.
Then Jeff Hendrick, playing in a more defensive role than usual, burst through the middle in the 23rd minute with the intention and confidence not seen by the Burnley man in the green jersey since Euro 2016.
The Dubliner, without breaking stride, slid the ball right to the adjacent Long who put the head down and drilled his effort goalwards.
Ilie Cebanu stood his ground and saved well, beating the ball back from whence it came and Long was unluckly not to direct the rebound into the empty net.
Moldova eventually came into the game thanks to some fine composed play from midfield trio Gheorghe Anton, Alexandru Gatcan and Artur Ionita, before Sergiu Plătică almost halved the deficit from 30 yards out.
The Speranța Nisporeni forward found himself in space under a dropping ball and needed just one touch to set himself up for a near-perfect left-footed volley, which was only denied its rightful place in the top corner by the outstretched fingertips of Darren Randolph, who tipped it over for a corner.
The visitors enjoyed a modicum of success as they kept plenty of possession in the Ireland half, but Ireland’s midfield, marvellously marshalled by Meyler kept their chances to a minimum.
Meyler, playing the captain’s role to perfection, both guiding and reading the game from his vantage point in front of the back four, had just the one moment of concern throughout those opening 45 minutes as his back-pass to Randolph in the 30th minute barely reached the foot of the Ireland keeper, who did very well to clear the ball back up the pitch – inadvertently almost setting Callum O’Dowda with a great chance on goal.
Ciaran Clark nearly made it three just before the break but his header – worked from another set piece – just flew wide of the post.
A slow start to the second half suited Ireland as they maintained their dominance without threatening in the Moldova final third.
But then the ever-lively Hoolahan found some space just outside the box on the right-hand side and curled a delightful ball into the box, Murphy connecting with a glancing header, which looked to be heading towards the goal.
A Moldovan arm appeared to be struck and while the appeals were not too vocal, the evidence appeared compelling.
But again Moldova played their way into the game as the Ireland back four appeared to kick into default mode and drift back towards the safety blanket of the edge of the box.
Hoolahan again was the driving force as he broke past two retreating defenders in the 61st minute and bore down on goal with Long and O’Dowda either side of his central position.
Unselfishly, Hoolahan opted to slide the ball left but for once the Norwich maestro was just out of sync as O’Dowda’s run had narrowed too much and the Bristol City man was forced to cut back onto his right foot.
A blocked effort hopped across to Long who squirmed the ball goalwards with a reflex effort but again his fortune proved unfavourable and the ball squeezed just the wrong side of the post.
There was an international debut for former Cork City striker Sean Maguire with eight minutes remaining and, alongside fellow substitutes Aiden McGeady and Harry Arter, injected energy into the Ireland efforts for the final ten minutes.
Maguire received a rapturous reception, akin to when James McClean made his international bow, and looked lively as he led the line for final exchanges.
But there was to be no dream debut for the Preston North End striker as the game ran its course without a proper attempt on goal, the only action of note the red card for Moldova’s Gatcan who stuck his head into Arter’s face deep into injury time.
So on to Cardiff on Monday night when another must-win encounter will either finish Ireland’s World Cup campaign in failure, or see O’Neill’s side march on to the play-off stages.
Ireland: Darren Randolph; Cyrus Christie, Shane Duffy, Ciaran Clark, Stephen Ward; Jeff Hendrick, David Meyler, Wes Hoolahan (Aiden McGeady 78), Callum O'Dowda; Shane Long (Sean Maguire 83), Daryl Murphy (Harry Arter 78).
Moldova: Ilie Cebanu; Vitalie Bordian, Alexandru Epureanu, Petru Racu, Artiom Rozgoniuc; Gheorghe Anton, Alexandru Gatcan, Artur Ionita, Alexandru Dedov (Eugeniu Cociuc 53), Sergiu Plătică (Vladimir Ambros 78); Radu Ginsari.
Referee: Bas Nijhuis (NED)