Robbie Keane was Ireland’s hero once again with his 40th international goal for the Republic of Ireland earning them three precious points tonight in Cyprus.
The game looked to be heading for a draw after Marios Elia had cancelled out Kevin Doyle’s fifth-minute opener, but Keane worked his magic to keep up the pressure on Group Eight leaders Italy.
The striker glanced home Damien Duff’s 83rd-minute cross to claim his 40th senior international goal and three vital points.
Keane’s winner came as news of victories for Group Eight leaders Italy and third-placed Bulgaria filtered through, and will send the Republic into their remaining games – against the Italians and Montenegro at Croke Park next month – knowing second place is there for the taking, and top spot is not beyond them.
Ireland sit in second place one point behind leaders Italy ahead of next month’s game, and five ahead of Bulgaria in third.
Giovanni Trapattoni’s men were in front within five minutes when Kevin Doyle fired home a fifth-minute opener, but Marios Elia levelled after 30 minutes after Shay Given had pulled off a fine save to deny Ioannis Okkas.
Ireland had chances to win the game before Keane did just that – goalkeeper Sofronis Avgousti denied Glenn Whelan with a superb 50th-minute stop – but they were made to work hard for a win which had the travelling fans inside the GSP Stadium dreaming of South Africa as they departed.
Ireland could hardly have got off to a better start as they forced Cyprus on to the back foot, just as they had done at Croke Park in October last year.
Full-back Andreas Avraam had little option but to concede a fifth-minute corner as Doyle closed on Duff’s cross, and the visitors took full advantage.
John O’Shea met Stephen Hunt’s cross beyond the far post and headed it back into the mix, and after Keith Andrews’ shot had been blocked, Doyle turned and smashed the loose ball past Avgousti.
The lead might have lasted just two minutes, however, had in not been for Given’s athleticism, the Manchester City goalkeeper arching his back to claw away Okkas’ goal-bound header, earning the good fortune which came his way when Chrysostomos Michail completely miskicked as the ball was fed back across.
The equaliser arrived from the right flank with half an hour gone when, after Dunne had dispossessed Okkas inside the penalty area and Sean St Ledger had blocked Avraam’s shot, Elia made no mistake to lash the ball into the far corner.
Ireland’s response was swift and concerted, and they might have regained the lead had Andrews’ 36th-minute effort from distance been a foot closer to Avgousti’s right post or had Kevin Kilbane been able to keep his header a fraction lower seconds later.
Konstantinos Charalambides headed over at the other end five minutes before the break, but Trapattoni’s men left the pitch at half-time knowing the game was very much up for the taking.
Just as they had done in the first half, Ireland started strongly in the second, and might have been back in front twice within the opening five minutes of the break.
Stephen Hunt headed a Duff cross into the side-netting from an acute angle, before Glen Whelan forced Avgousti into a top-class save with 50 minutes of play.
Keane’s knock-down from Doyle’s cross fell perfectly for the Stoke midfielder, who struck it first-time towards the top corner, only for the ‘keeper’s fingertip save.
There was an anxious moment for the visitors when Okkas looked to have got past Dunne as the pair raced into the box shoulder to shoulder and the striker ended up on the floor.
But Austrian referee Thomas Einwaller was not impressed, much to the dissatisfaction of the locals.
Trapattoni replaced Hunt with Aiden McGeady with 23 minutes remaining, although the winger’s first contribution was to concede a corner from which Charalambides should have done better.
Cyprus substitute Nektarios Alexandrou carved his way into the Republic’s penalty area within a minute of his arrival and might have caused serious damage had O’Shea, who looped a header just over seconds later at the other end, not intervened in the nick of time.
But it was left to Keane to do what he has done so often in the past, beating Avgousti to Duff’s 83rd-minute cross to glance a header home and send the travelling fans into raptures.
|1||Italy||7||5||2||0||11 / 3||17|
|2||Rep of Ireland||8||4||4||0||10 / 6||16|
|3||Bulgaria||7||2||5||0||10 / 5||11|
|4||Cyprus||7||1||2||4||7 / 11||5|
|5||Montenegro||7||0||4||3||6 / 12||4|
|6||Georgia||8||0||3||5||4 / 11||3|