McClean double earns Ireland victory in Moldova
The first ever meeting between these nations gave the locals a taste of how Ireland like to get things done. There's always a twist, writes Daniel McDonnell.
Martin O'Neill's side completed a six-point week after dominating this game for long periods yet a daft concession before half-time added unnecessary stress to what should have been a routine test.
Relief was the prevailing emotion when James McClean added the decisive goal with 21 minutes remaining and he quickly completed a brace to put a comfortable look on the scoreline.
It reflected the balance of play across the duration without quite telling the full story of a worrying second half spell where Ireland threatened to drop points to the 161st ranked team in the world. Moldova will finish bottom of this group.
Irish fans were singing about top spot at the end and this sets up an interesting encounter in Vienna next month after an Austrian loss in Serbia backed up O'Neill's view that a point in Belgrade will turn out to be valuable.
The two sides that participated in that messy 2-2 draw now sit at the summit on seven points each.
The Derryman already had reason to feel vindicated before kick-off as Georgia followed on from their strong performance in Dublin with a draw in Cardiff to halt Wales' momentum.
Avoiding defeat in Austria would set up an intriguing 2017 with the focus on significant matches on home soil.
This was a trip into the unknown for Ireland but there was nothing intimidating about it.
The Moldovan public has been worn down by a brutal run of results at home including every Chisinau encounter in the Euro 2016 campaign and the 10,000 capacity Stadionul Zimbru was nowhere near full.
Coach Igor Dobrovolski spent a portion of his pre-match press conference discussing a 'rat' in the camp that was feeding information to the local media.
But it was leaks in the defence that hurt the under-fire coach here as Ireland found a way ahead inside two minutes.
Hoolahan had a point to prove after he was benched at the Aviva and he was the source of inspiration, collecting a tee-up from James McClean and spotting Shane Long bursting free.
His pass was crisp and precise and so was Long's finish with the Southampton striker relieving the frustration of an 18-match run without a goal for club and country.
It's the third time this year that Ireland have scored before some fans have taken their seats but, unlike France and Serbia, a victory would follow.
Moldova huffed and puffed and competed reasonably well in the physical stakes but they don't have much more in their locker.
O'Neill's men were able to keep the ball better than on Thursday yet they also were happy enough to go from back to front quickly.
The initial difference was that Hoolahan's quality kept the ball up there.
Seamus Coleman was also extremely influential, a constant overlapping threat from right full.
He actually had set the tone in the short window before Long's goal by winning possession at the edge of his own box and keeping the ball in play when others might have knocked it behind for a corner. The little things matter.
Ireland were comfortably on top and might have extended their lead before the interval with McClean snatching at a couple of opportunities.
Hoolahan missed narrowly from a James McCarthy centre and a free kick from Glenn Whelan was blocked with the foul that created it ending the contribution of covering Moldovan defender Igor Armas.
But instead of going in with a cushion, Ireland lost their way and forfeited their advantage.
The criticism against Georgia was that they were caught too deep and the combination of Whelan and McCarthy meant there was a danger of falling into that trap.
However, Ireland were in control and pushed up to the extent that they managed to get caught by a routine clearance and pass that exposed a high line with Shane Duffy stepping up and moving out of position, leaving a gap that allowed Igor Bugaev to gallop behind him and show greater speed to advance from the halfway line into the box before slotting calmly past Darren Randolph.
Suddenly, the locals were in love with football life again. The decibel levels grew after the restart when Randolph struggled to command his area and half chances gave the away end some anxious moments.
When Long pulled up with what looked to be a hamstring injury, Ireland were in crisis territory as the bench was dominated by centre halves and inexperienced attackers.
Callum O'Dowda was summoned for a competitive debut with Walters pushed through the middle and McClean switched right.
But Moldova were in giddy territory and it showed as they dropped further back and allowed Ireland to pass the ball around in front of them.
As the game entered the final quarter, they were punished as James McCarthy was given an abundance of space to line up a shot that struck Walters and fell into the path of McClean who calmly slotted home.
Crucially, Ireland pressed on to remove suspense instead of sitting back and Hoolahan's trickery released Coleman for a deft chip that McClean converted with his left foot.
That was mission accomplished with O'Neill utilising his bench for a serene conclusion to a week of hard work.
Moldova: Calancea, Bordian, Posmac, Armas (Golovatenco 37), Bolohan; Gatcan, Cojocari; Andronic (Sidorenco 84), Zasavitchi (Cebotaru 62) , Dedov; Bugaev
Ireland: Randolph, Coleman, Clark, Duffy, Ward; Whelan, McCarthy (Meyler 80); Walters, Hoolahan (O'Kane 86), McClean; Long (O'Dowda 63)