It always felt like it was going to take something a little special to breakdown what was a strong but not impenetrable Georgian defence and the special moment eventually came from Jeff Hendrick on 69 minutes. The Derby County midfielder danced his way past three red jerseys and drove into the Georgian box with a show of stellar close control and quick feet. The 23-year-old proceeded to fire low and hard to the feet of Jon Walters who was on hand to bundle the ball into the back of Nukri Revishvili’s net, sending Martin O’Neill, Roy Keane and the Irish fans jumping for joy. It took Ireland 60 minutes to warm the task, a whipped Robbie Brady cross saw Walters bearing down at the back post for what looked likely to be the game’s opening goal, but only for a fantastic defensive header from Zurab Khizanishvili to see the ball to safety. Deflected shots from Hendrick and Glenn Whelan followed and there was a sense in the stadium that Ireland needed to make the mounting pressure count. A breaking ball founds it way to James McCarthy but the Everton man could only fire wide, but it heaped the pressure on a tiring Georgia side and it was that tiredness that was exposed by the man of the moment Hendrick.
In what was a slow and tetchy opening from both teams, it was a game that began with a woefully wayward pass from left-back Brady on three minutes to put pressure on the Irish defence, with his pass going all the way out for a corner. Georgia couldn’t capitalise from the resulting corner and four minutes later it was Ireland’s chance to have a half-chance of their own. Norwich’s Wes Hoolahan had time and space in the Georgian box to cross for captain Robbie Keane, who was unmarked at the back post, but the Irish skipper could not bring the ball down quick enough and blazed over the crossbar and that would be as close as the LA Galaxy striker would come, as he was subbed off at half-time. The subdued atmosphere in stands was matched by a subdued and uninspiring first-half performance from Ireland on the pitch. Ireland looked to constantly work the ball out wide to full-backs Brady and Seamus Coleman. Countless crosses were dealt with resolutely from a strong and imposing Georgian defence. In truth, it was a game plan that Georgia dealt with stoutly, only for Coleman’s rasping effort that stung the gloves of goalkeeper Nukri Revishvili on 37 minutes, the Irish fans had little to shout about.
After a lacklustre 1-1 draw with Scotland at home back in June, it had looked like the Republic of Ireland’s chances of qualifying for France were slim to none. With Georgia’s win over Scotland on Friday and tonight’s 1-0 win, Ireland sit on the cusp of securing a third place finish in Group D and with it playoff place, which in turn would keep Martin O’Neill and his men in the hunt for a final place in France next summer. What now stands in the way of Ireland’s participation at back-to-back European championships is the hosting of World Cup holders Germany and then an away trip to Poland, with both games coming next month in October. A late, late leveller from then centurion John O’Shea saw Ireland knick a crucial away point, a similar result in Ireland’s next outing against Joachim Low’s men could see Ireland put one hand firmly on a third-place finish.
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