Belfast Telegraph

Walters ensures Republic of Ireland are in a best-case scenario

Republic of Ireland 1-0 Georgia

By Daniel McDonnell

This dull win for Republic of Ireland, combined with news of an entertaining defeat for Scotland, leaves Martin O'Neill in a position that was the best-case scenario coming into this week.

The manner of the win is unlikely to have dramatically boosted the confidence of a public that wants a little more bang for their buck but the manager's reaction at the final whistle made it clear he was worried about this task.

The Republic are now four points ahead of Scotland heading into next month's concluding double-header with Germany and a Poland side that can wrap up third place for O'Neill's side if they can win in Glasgow.

The permutations will be analysed in depth, yet all the Republic can control is what happens in their own matches and the manner of this success will have given O'Neill food for thought.

Aside from Seamus Coleman's anticipated return in place of Cyrus Christie, he made no changes from the team that did the business in Gibraltar.

However, it was a half-time reshuffle that sacrificed Robbie Keane and introduced Shane Long that helped instigate an improvement that eventually wore down a dogged Georgian operation.

O'Neill had said on the eve of the game that it wouldn't make any difference to his players if the stadium was half-full and the low attendance for a competitive qualifier of significance tested that theory.

After a sloppy opening summed up by an attempted Robbie Brady cross-field pass going out for a Georgia corner, it was the Republic who carved the first major opening. Brady found Wes Hoolahan, selected at the tip of the midfield diamond again, and he engineered a one-two with Jon Walters and clipped to the far post where Robbie Keane fired over. The unmarked James McCarthy was screaming for the pass.

It didn't set the tone for what followed as Georgian confidence was emphasised by a weaving run through a static midfield by Valeri Kazaishvili, the slayer of Scotland, which culminated with Italian based attacker Levan Mchedlidze scuffing a shot straight at Shay Given with the Irish rearguard badly stretched.

The visitors enjoyed a good spell with the natives noticeably subdued by the fare being served up in front of them. When Given was given time to walk up the pitch and send a punt in the direction of Walters that came to nothing, the frustration was audible.

It was just too one-dimensional and, for periods, Georgia were actually setting the tempo with Kazaishvili, Tornike Okriashvili and skipper Jaba Kankava comfortable in possession.

Eight minutes before the break, the punters were given reason to rise in their seats as Seamus Coleman controlled a headed Georgian clearance and executed a right footed volley that was acrobatically stopped by Nukri Revishvili.

The pitch was starting to look very big, and the half-time whistle was greeted with about the same enthusiasm as the announcement at a wedding that somebody is about to say grace. Boredom appeared to be the prevailing mood.

An improvement followed in the second half with a sense of urgency about the Irish display that was met with a rise in energy levels around the ground.

Coleman gave Rekishvili something else to think about with a toe poke from a Hoolahan pass before Jeff Hendrick forced the Georgian netminder into a save and Walters nearly met a Glenn Whelan centre with the right connection. McCarthy then overclubbed when an unconvincing punch gave the Everton midfielder the freedom to pick a spot.

At this juncture, the hosts had 10 Premier League performers and one Championship operator on the pitch and it was Hendrick, the solitary man from the second tier, that stepped up to seize the day.

He wandered to the left flank, and threw a few shapes to break the Georgian unit and scamper into the box before executing a pull-back that was converted courtesy of an intuitive run and flick from Walters.

There were a few nervy moments for the crowd as O'Neill's side did drop off somewhat as the finishing line came into sight, and McClean, introduced for Hoolhan, as usual had made his presence felt and earned a yellow card that will rule him out of Germany's visit next month.

O'Neill will sleep better over the next month than he surely did over the summer after Scotland came away celebrating from Ballsbridge.

Belfast Telegraph