The Republic of Ireland will head into 2017 with everything to play for according to Martin O'Neill, whose side recovered from a mid-game blip to beat a Moldova 3-1 and join Serbia on seven points at the top of their world cup qualification group.
“To win this game, for us I think you can say that is pretty big,” said the manager after two second-half goals from James McClean ensured the Ireland’s victory. “It’s too early to call the group, to do it after three games would be lunacy, but to win the game and in the manner that we did is very good for us.
“I wasn’t surprised by the result in Cardiff [where Georgia came from behind to draw 1-1 with Wales] and I think that some of the lads were saying that it was 2-2 for a long time [in Belgrade where Serbia eventually won 3-2]. So it was tight, but it’s nice for us to win here; we’ll go into Christmas with one more game and by then we’ll have played three away from home and we’ll have everything to play for in the new year”.
Inevitably, it was not plain sailing and after Shane Long had given the Irish a very early lead O'Neill admitted to having been terribly disappointed with the goal his team conceded just before the break. "The goal was a real setback because we hadn't looked like we were in any trouble up until that point. I thought we were dominating, but we had to put it right and we did, and that was very satisfying."
Shane Duffy took the biggest portion of the blame from most watching, but his manager said others must take their share of responsibility.
“It was not just Shane,” he insisted. “We have the ball three or four yards from their touchline, the fourth official had already put two minutes up, we lose the ball, you could mention three of four things that could happened before their player broke through from his own half and scored the goal.
“We had good spells of possession [after that] but we just seemed to fall away inside the penalty area, and when you do that there’s always the possibility that we are going to concede. But we stayed at it and James came up with two excellent goals, well done to him.”
“When Jon [Walters] moved into the centre forward’s role I thought he was exceptional for us but James is a wholehearted player as you know. What he’s doing now is getting himself into goalscoring positions; more goalscoring positions than he did before.”
Seamus Coleman, he said, was fantastic while James McCarthy was another to be singled out for the quality of his performance. Wes Hoolahan's contribution, especially his pass for the first goal, was highlighted too, although O'Neill acknowledged that the Dubliner had not had it all his own way.
“The pitch was in really good shape and it was one of those matches where I thought he could work something for us. Some things that he did went really, really well; some others didn’t really come off but he did well and Eunan O’Kane and Callum O’Dowda both came on,” he said before adding an apparently light-hearted jibe at journalists after their questions about Harry Arter last week: “so there’s no doubt that we’ll have young Callum playing for us now . . . although I haven’t told him that yet.”
The pair may be peripheral for some time yet but McClean continues to become an ever more central figure to the squad. “We had scored early but we thought it was too easy,” said the man who scored both of Ireland’s second half goals. He admitted that the manager had doled out “another rollicking” at the break. “They got a goal just before half-time and that goal was a wake-up call for us, but we move on now to the next one.”