Republic rattled as Georgia battle back for Tbilisi point
Valeri Kazaishvili put the brakes on the Republic of Ireland's charge towards the World Cup finals as they had to make do with a draw in Georgia.
The midfielder cancelled out Shane Duffy's early opener, the first goal of his senior international career, before the break to leave the Republic hanging on on a steamy night in Tbilisi.
Ireland boss Martin O'Neill had admitted before kick-off that the Group D clash was not so much a "tricky" affair as a "really, genuinely difficult" one, and so it proved as Georgia did everything within their powers to secure a first win of the campaign.
The Republic, who had won all eight previous meetings between the sides, started strongly and ended on the front foot with three out-and-out strikers on the pitch, but did too little in between to warrant anything more than a draw.
Indeed, the Georgians among a small but noisy crowd at the Boris Paichadze Dinamo Arena will feel a point was significantly more than the visitors deserved, although substitute Aiden McGeady wasted a glorious opportunity to win it at the death. It was a different story to three years ago, when a late McGeady goal at the same stadium secured three points.
Ireland headed for home knowing Tuesday's clash with Serbia at the Aviva Stadium has assumed even greater proportions as a result of their result in Tbilisi, and that there is still a long way to go in the group in which they sit second, behind their next opponents.
They could hardly have got off to a better start than when they took the lead with just four minutes gone.
Goalkeeper Giorgi Makaridze chose to come for, but did not reach, Cyrus Christie's deep free-kick under pressure from Duffy and Ciaran Clark. And the pain of colliding with the pair was doubled when Brighton defender Duffy climbed highest to head into the unguarded net.
Makaridze needed extensive treatment after his early mishap, but his woes almost doubled when he flapped at a Robbie Brady free-kick and was relieved to see the ball curl past his far post, as he was when James McClean glanced wide with 20 minutes played.
However, with the excellent Jano Ananidze orchestrating from an advanced midfield position and Jambul Jigauri and Otar Kakabadze combining down the right to cause full-back Stephen Ward all kinds of problems, Georgia dominated possession for much of the first half.
Duffy and Clark repeatedly found themselves in the firing line with Ireland too often squandering possession and inviting pressure, although apart from having to beat away Kakabadze's driven 24th-minute cross, goalkeeper Darren Randolph was reasonably well protected.
However, Georgia got their reward with 11 minutes of the half remaining when Ananidze accepted Valerian Gvilia's pass, shuffled the ball into space and then slid it between Duffy and Christie for Kazaishvili to beat the advancing Randolph.
The Republic were wobbling in the face of a concerted onslaught, although Duffy forced a save from Makaridze with another firm header on the stroke of half-time.
O'Neill's half-time team talk could not have been for the faint-hearted, with his side having struggled to get into the game despite their early lead, but Ireland found themselves anchored deep inside their own territory and with little prospect of breaking out or even being able to put a foot on the ball.
O'Neill threw on McGeady in a bid to regain a foothold in the game, and the ploy almost paid dividends when Christie was able to make a rare foray forward to deliver a 69th-minute cross which Long could only guide on to the roof of the net.
With the game opening up, O'Neill's men went close twice within seconds when McGeady ended a promising run with an ambitious shot which was blocked at source before Brady tested Makaridze with a rasping effort.
It was Sunderland winger McGeady who could have won it in stoppage time when the ball fell to him in front of goal amid a frenetic conclusion, but he ballooned his shot high over the bar.