Astana: The Republic of Ireland began their World Cup 2014 qualification campaign with a hard fought 2-1 win over minnows Kazakhstan thanks to two late goals in Group C.
The Irish trailed 1-0 at the break and, reeling from the disappointment of Euro 2012, looked bereft of ideas as Giovanni Trapattoni`s long-ball tactics failed to have an impact on the artificial turf of the Astana Arena.
The Boys in Green were lucky to come away with three points thanks to a Robbie Keane penalty and Kevin Doyle`s 90th-minute winner, following Kairat Nurdauletov`s headed opener.
On his first competitive start, James McCarthy started the match strongly, with a well-placed shot winning a corner after just two minutes. A route-one ball to Jon Walters a couple of minutes later was knocked down to Aiden McGeady, but after turning past a defender, the Spartak Moscow winger skewed his shot across goal.
Kazakhstan showed they could keep the ball themselves and had a couple of early chances, but were let down when Ulan Konysbaev overhit a pass to Tanat Nusrbayev in a dangerous position. At the other end, Irish captain Robbie Keane showed a neat bit of skill to beat the defence, but could not keep his volley on target.
Ireland were regularly hitting it long in the opening half, but when they played the ball along the ground they had a great opportunity when McGeady found Simon Cox out wide. Cox played a quick one-two with Walters, but his shot only found the side netting. The visitors could have had a penalty kick when Keane was impeded in the box, attempting to meet a cross from McGeady. However Keane put up little protest and Kazakhstan cleared their lines.
The hosts took an unexpected lead in the 37th minute after a foul by Stephen Ward on Konysbayev. Heinrich Shmidtgal swung in the free kick, which was flighted perfectly onto the head of the unmarked Nurdauletov, who left Keiren Westwood with no chance. Moments later, Kazakhstan had nearly doubled their lead, but Westwood pulled off a fantastic save from Ostapenko. The rebound came back off the post, but had been waved offside by the assistant referee.
Ireland continued with their long-ball tactics after the interval, but caused few problems for the Kazakh defence. Trapattoni finally made a change on 58 minutes, sending on Wolverhampton Wanderers striker Kevin Doyle for Cox and moving Walters out wide. The substitution sparked some life into the Irish side, with McGeady again causing trouble down the left. Unfortunately a well-flighted cross from wide missed the heads of both Doyle and Keane as Ireland searched for a goal.
The Boys in Green began to rely too much on McGeady, putting the winger under a lot of pressure to deliver. Unfortunately, he was poorly-supported and became frustrated as the match went on. In order to try and force the outcome, Shane Long was sent on for Walters with 20 minutes to go as Trapattoni`s side looked to switch to a 4-3-3 for the final stages.
A rare shot on target arrived from outside the box as the ball fell to Glenn Whelan, but the Stoke City midfielder could only hit the ball straight at Andrey Sidelnikov. A quick break for Kazakhstan saw Baurzhan Dzholchiev go one-on-one with Westwood, but the keeper stood strong and Dzholchiev missed the target.
Trapattoni urged his players forward for the last 10 minutes, but the Kazakh defence held strong as Ireland failed to break down the back four. However, a foul on Keane after a cross from Kevin Doyle saw Ireland win an 88th-minute penalty. Captain Keane stepped up to take the spot-kick and score his 54th international goal.
A free-kick from inside the Kazakh half then found Doyle in the box, and the Wolves striker pounced to score a late winner and spare Trapattoni`s and Ireland`s blushes.