Euro 2012 qual. - Tough win puts Ireland joint top
The Republic of Ireland moved alongside Russia and Slovakia at the top of Euro 2012 qualifying Group B with a narrow 2-1 win over an impressive Macedonia side at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin.
A pair of goalkeeping errors allowed Aiden McGeady and Robbie Keane to move into an early 2-0 lead but Ivan Trickovski’s fine goal just before half-time gave Mirsad Jonuz’s side hope.
An open second half saw the visitors - boasting Internazionale star Goran Pandev - take the game to Ireland, for whom stand-in keeper Keiren Westwood effectively earned the win with a world-class stop from Trickovski.
The victory - combined with Russia’s surprise draw with Armenia and Slovakia’s win over Andorra - leaves Giovanni Trapattoni’s in a three-way tie atop their group, although the final standings will be defined by head-to-head first and, in the event of a three-way tie, an eliminator.
Ireland got off to a brilliant start when, after 84 seconds, McGeady cracked in a fierce low drive that keeper Edin Nuredinoski should have saved but could only palm inside the left-hand post.
It was McGeady’s first international goal, surprising given his return at club level for Celtic and latterly Spartak Moscow, and he owes a debt of gratitude to Nuredinoski, who had an atrocious first half.
The Ethnikos Achna shot-stopper only recently rose to prominence after a successful couple of seasons in Cyprus and he looked nervous throughout, spilling a Damien Duff daisy cutter but able to claim the loose ball ahead of Kevin Doyle.
On 10 minutes he did relatively well, denying Keane at the far post after Doyle’s clever knock-down, but he was saving his worst for midway through the first half.
Darron Gibson’s long-range free-kick was fired straight at him but, under no pressure, the hapless keeper spilled it into Keane’s path as the West Ham forward gobbled up his 46th international goal, a remarkable return.
In fairness Ireland deserved their lead as they attacked with pace and desire, while their guests were content to stroke the ball about in midfield without risking any genuine efforts.
Nuredinoski was dropping everything but Ireland failed to punish him again and the Balkan side seemed to wake up just after the half-hour mark as Trickovski, who also plays in Cyprus, turned to strike a super effort just wide of the post with Westwood - starting in place of the injured Shay Given - well beaten.
Ireland still seemed to be in control, although a serious-looking knee injury to Doyle appeared to rattle them.
And, on the stroke of half time, they switched off altogether as a superb run and through-ball by danger-man Pandev found Trickovski, who beat the offside trap, turned Richard Dunne and slipped a cool finish past Westwood.
Macedonia were clearly buoyed going into half time and started the second period like a house on fire. The lack of a top-notch out-and-out striker showed though, with Ilco Naumoski out of his depth and Pandev and Trickovski happier deep or wide.
Pandev volleyed a difficult effort just wide after a superb cross by Goran Popov as the visitors showed verve and confidence going forward.
While Macedonia were unlucky to have a weak keeper, they were very fortunate to have a weak referee, who should have sent Boban Grncarov for a disgraceful challenge on Shane Long.
In an almost identical incident to that which saw Manchester City’s Mario Balotelli dismissed for a head-high challenge - ironically on Dynamo Kiev’s Macedonia left-back Popov - Grncarov opted to challenge for a header with his boot, clobbering Long on the ear and leaving him requiring a bandage to stem the flow of blood.
Inexplicably Istvan Vad of Hungary only showed him a yellow card, allowing Macedonia to continue their assault on Ireland.
Duff had a great chance to restore the two-goal advantage but, after super wing-play by the excellent McGeady, he could only fire wide.
That was a rare interlude though as Macedonia became increasingly dangerous, with the importance of a good goalkeeper highlighted with a quarter of an hour remaining.
Whereas Macedonia’s keeper effectively handed the Irish victory, Coventry City’s Westwood effectively earned them three points with a game-saving save from point-blank range after Dunne and Kevin Foley went to sleep to let Trickovski clean through.
The latter stages degenerated into a bitty affair, with a rash of bookings and Popov fortunate to escape a second yellow after a collision with Long.
Dunne was also booked after he brought down Pandev, meaning he misses the return trip to Skopje and giving his young Aston Villa team-mate Ciaran Clake a chance to shine.
There was a late half-chance for Macedonia as Trickovski again had a sight of goal, but the green shirts closed him out and he could only fire over.
Ireland held out to move on to 10 points from five games, level with Russia and Slovakia but with the final shake-up likely to come down to results between the three.
Armenia 0-0 Russia
Misfiring Russia were held to a 0-0 draw by hard-working Armenia, missing a chance to extend their lead in Group B.
The top-seeded Russians now have 10 points from five matches while Armenia briefly moved into second place with eight points, although slipped to fourth after Ireland and Slovakia won.
Russia have now failed to score for a third consecutive match after losing two friendlies to Belgium (2-0) and Iran (1-0) in the last five months.
After a slow opening, the Russians took control, creating several scoring chances but failed to find the target.
Yura Movsisyan wasted Armenia's best chance early in the second half when he fired wide from close range.
Alexander Kerzhakov, who scored for Russia in each of their two previous qualifiers against Ireland and Macedonia, missed the top corner when he was sent clear a few minutes later.
Russia captain Andrei Arshavin had a quiet game, missing the target with his only shot at goal late in the game.
Andorra 0-1 Slovakia
Slovakia laboured to a 1-0 victory over Andorra on Saturday to keep themselves in the hunt to qualify for next year's Euro 2012 finals.
Slovan Bratislava's Filip Sebo headed the winner after 21 minutes at the Estadi Comunal, his seventh goal for the national team, to leave Slovakia in a three-way tie for leadership of qualifying Group B.
Slovakia struggled against their limited opponents, however, and could not build on their lead.
Andorra, who have lost all five of their games and managed just one goal, even had a late chance to level but Oscar Sonejee was unable to convert just seconds before the final whistle.
Slovakia will hope to bolster their goal difference when they host Andorra in June.