The Republic of Ireland lost ground on World Cup qualifying rivals Serbia after they were held to a 1-1 draw by Georgia in Tbilisi.
Shane Duffy scored after just four minutes to delight the travelling Irish supporters, who had seen their side take 12 points from their opening six Group D matches.
But Georgia dominated possession and took control of the game before Valeri Qazaishvili equalised after 34 minutes with a goal that seemed to knock the stuffing out of Ireland.
Duffy went close to restoring Ireland’s lead on the cusp of half-time, but the visitors’ performance thereafter was poor, with stray passes and a lack of bite in midfield allowing Georgia an easy ride as they picked up their fourth draw of the campaign.
Meanwhile, Serbia’s 3-0 win over Moldova ensured they went two points clear of Ireland ahead of the two sides meeting in Dublin on Tuesday, when Martin O’Neill’s men go in search of a victory to revive their hopes of winning the group.
The draw will also offer hope to Wales and Austria in their respective hopes for a play-off place, with the two meeting later on Saturday and five points adrift of Ireland.
Ireland made the breakthrough in just the fourth minute. Cyrus Christie’s long, looping free-kick found the head of Duffy, who rose above on-rushing goalkeeper Giorgi Makaridze to nod the ball into the empty net.
— FAIreland (@FAIreland) September 2, 2017
Georgia dictated possession without threatening an equaliser and it was Ireland who looked more likely to grab the game’s second goal when Jonathan Walters – earning his 50th cap for his country – whipped over a cross that James McClean sent just wide of the left post with a glancing header.
Shane Long then rattled a well-struck shot over the crossbar from 25 yards but, just as Ireland were starting to look comfortable, the hosts drew level.
Valerian Gvilia’s low pass found Jano Ananidze, who side-stepped the challenge of Christie before playing in Qazaishvili to finish with a low shot through Darren Randolph’s legs.
Makaridze ensured the scores stayed level at the break with a brilliant reflex save just before half-time when Duffy met Robbie Brady’s corner with a far-post header.
Ananidze drilled a low, right-footed shot just wide of Randolph’s net four minutes after the re-start, while Harry Arter’s lobbed attempt after an hour was all Ireland mustered in a subdued opening to the second half.
Ireland’s energy and poise waned as the second half went on, although they showed a glimpse of the free-flowing football they are capable of when a break down the right flank saw Christie tee up Long for a header that was not far wide of the target.
Walters also hit a rising drive that stung the palms of Makaridze, but Ireland’s push for a late winner lacked conviction and O’Neill will hope his side are in better form in Tuesday’s crunch match at Aviva Stadium.
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