Aiden McGeady launched Martin O’Neill’s competitive reign as Republic of Ireland boss in style with a match-winning Euro 2016 qualifier double in Georgia.
The Republic looked likely to have to settle for a point at the Boris Paichadze Dinamo Arena in Tbilisi after Tornike Okriashvili’s piledriver had canceled out McGeady 24th-minute opener.
But with time running down, the Everton winger – who worked under O’Neill during his time as Celtic manager – curled home a 90th-minute winner which ensured Ireland headed back to Dublin with the opening night win upon which they had set their hearts.
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McGeady turned in arguably the best performance of his international career on a night when he collected his 70th cap, and he undoubtedly made the difference between two well-matched sides in a game which see-sawed throughout.
Victory extended the Republic’s 100 per cent record against Georgia to six games and will send them into next month’s double-header against minnows Gibraltar and group favorites Germany brimming with confidence.
By contrast, Temuri Ketsbaia’s men face the prospect of having to lift themselves for a tough trip to Scotland with their account empty.
O’Neill surprised a few by naming Hull midfielder Stephen Quinn in the center of his midfield five, with Stoke striker Jon Walters lining up on the right and McGeady occupying the left-wing berth earmarked for James McClean before he was ruled out by injury.
Central defender Solomon Kverkvelia had to hack away a first-minute Walters cross at full-stretch, and Guram Kashia had to be equally alert 18 minutes later after McGeady had tricked his way past wing-back Ucha Lobzhanidze and sent a teasing ball into the middle.
Georgia gradually eased their way into the game and after David Forde, preferred in goal to 38-year-old Shay Given, had managed to get just enough on Nikoloz Gelashvili’s rasping drive, Lobzhanidze came close to connecting with Kverkvelia’s flick-on at the far post.
But they fell behind within seconds when, after Walters climbed into an aerial challenge, Robbie Keane allowed the ball to run to James McCarthy and he drew his man before sliding McGeady in to finish with ease.
O’Neill and assistant Roy Keane leapt from the bench in celebration – but their joy was to be short-lived.
Skipper Jaba Kankava saw a 34th-minute strike deflected just wide but Georgia were level within four minutes when Okriashvili picked up possession on the right and after turning away from John O’Shea – the only survivor from Ireland’s last visit to the city in 2003 – and then Stephen Ward, thumped a dipping effort over Forde and into the net.
IGeorgia returned determined to regain the momentum with which they had ended the first half and committed men to the search for an early lead.
Robbie Keane hacked away an Okriashvili effort in the 52nd minute, then Forde too had to be on his toes to clutch Jano Ananidze’s low cross to his chest seconds later with Gelashvili looming.
But it was opposite number Roin Kvashvadze, a half-time replacement for Giorgi Loria, who threw himself desperately to his left as McGeady curled a shot inches wide from a well-worked 57th-minute free-kick.
Keane scuffed a volley harmlessly out of play at the far post, before McGeady cut inside and forced Kvashvadze to pluck the ball from underneath his crossbar.
However, as the game entered the closing stages, it was the Georgians who were building up a head of steam, and O’Neill responded with 14 minutes remaining by replacing Quinn and Keane with Robbie Brady and Shane Long in a bid to add new vigor to his attack.
In the meantime, McGeady had squandered yet another opportunity when he lashed at a dropping ball on the edge of the penalty area, slicing it wide when greater composure might have served him better.
However, he made no mistake when presented with another chance with seconds of normal time remaining, accepting Seamus Coleman’s pass before stepping on to his left foot and curled home a precious winner.
Denmark 2, Armenia 1
Denmark were spared another home embarrassment at the hands of Armenia as goals from Pierre Emile Hojbjerg and Thomas Kahlenberg secured the Scandinavians a come-from-behind 2-1 victory in their Euro 2016 qualifying campaign opener on Sunday.
Playing a nation who had pulled off a famous 4-0 victory over them at Parken during World Cup qualifying in 2013, the Danes looked set to be humbled by the Armenians in Copenhagen once again when Borussia Dortmund midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s strike put the away side 1-0 up in the 50th minute.
However, Hojbjerg leveled 15 minutes later with a long-range effort, and with 10 minutes of the contest to go substitute Kahlenberg headed home the winner.
Faroe Islands 1, Finland 3
Rosenborg striker Riku Riski rescued Finland from an embarrassing situation against the Faroe Islands.
Finland trailed to a Christian Holst goal and were in danger of becoming the Faroes’ first major scalp since June 2011.
But Riski scored a brace to spin the tie around and then Roman Eremenko added a late third for good measure in a 3-1 win.