Cardiff crucible beckons Ireland after Moldova win
Martin O’Neill must now go for broke against Wales in Cardiff on Monday night
Daryl Murphy scores his second goal against Moldova. Photograph: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images
Maybe Martin O’Neill and the FAI should agree terms before every big international. It has been a sweet 24 hours for the Derry man as he faces into Monday night’s game in Wales that is now set up as one of those Irish clarion calls. A hugely positive opening 20 minutes by Ireland took care of business in Dublin while Wales emerged from a tense trip to Georgia with a 1-0 win. A monumental Celtic derby awaits both countries, with Cardiff in full voice.
“I thought it was always going to be like this” O’Neill said afterwards. “When you get off to a decent start, your mindset begins to change a bit. But if you said to me at the very start that we have to go to Wales, I would take it.”
The Irish manager looked as upbeat and energised as he had in months and hinted at a willingness to go for broke for a match which will demand a degree of tactical bravery and innovation.
“If you look at the last three years in competitive football, I think we have taken a lot of risks in big, big matches. We have changed the team around to give ourselves energy. (Shane) Duffy came in for a big game . . . we ended up in Gelsenkirchen with (David) Meyler playing right back against Germany, the world champions, in a home match. And he did pretty well. We have done a lot of risking and we may have to do it again.”
For Ireland, nothing but a win will do. At least they can fly out of Dublin on a bright note. Ireland should have been 4-0 up after 24 minutes, which is not something said about them very often. From as early as the second minute, when Daryl Murphy edged around Sergiu Platica to get a touch on Stephen Ward’s long throw-in and grab his second international goal, it suddenly felt as if the evening would be all right.
A combination of injuries and the need to rest more senior players prompted an adventurous first XI selection from O’Neill. Callum O’Dowda started on the left wing, Meyler captained the team, with Murphy and Shane Long operating up front. And even if it was against lowly Moldova, the team just clicked early. Murphy’s second goal was a perfectly weighted header on a cross from Stephen Ward, who found himself utterly free of Moldovan attention on the left wing.
Murphy was delighted with life and all of a sudden, Ireland looked as if they were having fun. Ireland’s best move in, well, seasons, had happened just three minutes earlier; slick interplay between Ward and Hoolahan freed O’Dowda who gave a perfect squared pass for Long to slide home. But his placed attempt streaked wide.
At the heart of all this was Wes Hoolahan. It was Hoolahan who had the vision to notice and then find Ward cantering in splendid isolation up the left wing. With his first involvement, he took on Vitalie Bourdain, turned him and quickly won a free.
There were early signs of a fizzing understanding with the highly promising O’Dowda. Hoolahan makes good things happen out of nothing. There he was too in the 57th minute picking out Murphy - electric with confidence now - with a beautiful left-footed ball. No goal came of it but nobody minded: the night was beautiful, the crowd was having fun. All was good. And with two goals on the scoreboard, thoughts immediately began to turn to Cardiff.
A theory has developed that Hoolahan doesn’t have the engine for back-to-back internationals. There is an argument here that with Ireland 2-0 up, Hoolahan’s work had already been done: O’Neill could have whipped him off and rested him for Monday night’s showdown. He has turned the key on so many doors that seemed stubbornly locked for Ireland that it is hard to imagine that Ireland can steal a win in Wales without him. Equally, Murphy’s form and gameness, combined with Long’s cold streak, has elevated his place in the pecking order.
“If we had gone three goals up then I would have had a look. You have to make sure to win. Don’t be tinkering with things until you are sure you have won,” cautioned O’Neill on the temptation of introducing his bench players earlier.
But this was a night that the Irish needed. They met Moldova at the right time, fairly stunned now after a succession of batterings in this group and just a pair of draws with Georgia to build on. It was hard to figure that it took an 80th minute goal from Hal Robson-Kanu for Wales to break the Moldovan resistance in Chisinau - with Gareth Bale in the team, at that. The longer this night went on in Dublin, the more possible the mission began to seem.
In the 60th minute, Hoolahan broke through the Moldovan cover, almost stumbled, recovered without losing the ball and then unselfishly rolled a ball into the path of O'Dowda, who had figured out that its worth hanging about Hoolahan’s neighbourhood. The midfielder's shot was blocked but the ball spilled to Long, who saw his third golden chance of the night screw wide.
Twenty four games and counting without a goal: Long is having a Baltic streak and will just have to play through it. But that move provided further inarguable evidence of why Hoolahan has to be part of the Cardiff raid on Monday night. Hoolahan got a rapturous ovation on his exit, likewise Seán Maguire, when he made his debut in the 83rd minute. Over in Vienna, Austria got their act together to beat Serbia 3-2. That result gives both Wales and Ireland a chance of topping the group if they win on Monday. Talk about a prize. O’Neill shrugged when asked if the edginess of the home game in Dublin will return in Cardiff.
“Hopefully not. Naturally it is a big occasion. It’s not bad thing: two teams having to go and win the match. It sets it up.”
He sounded giddy at the prospect.