James McClean ensured the Republic of Ireland’s trip to Moldova did not end in embarrassment as he struck twice in quick succession to secure a 3-1 victory in Chisinau.
Ireland flew out of the blocks and were ahead within 116 seconds as Shane Long ended an 18-game drought for club and country.
However, Igor Bugaev dragged the home side back onto level terms on the stroke of half-time as the visitors slept, and it took McClean’s double – which came in the 69th and 76th minutes – to see Martin O’Neill’s men home.
It proved to be an unnecessarily tricky affair at the Stadionul Zimbru, but the Republic emerged with three points to add to the three they collected in more testing circumstances against Georgia on Thursday evening to take their tally to a more than satisfactory seven from their opening three fixtures.
However, there is no disguising the fact that they will need to be significantly better in Austria next month and for the tougher tests which lie ahead if they are to maintain that start.
O’Neill had been at pains to insist there are no easy games in international football in the modern era, but his players set about the task of proving him wrong with less than two minutes on the clock.
Wes Hoolahan’s pass carved the Moldovan defence wide open and a gleeful Long, who had not scored since doing so for Ireland in a friendly against Holland in May, expertly lifted a shot over advancing goalkeeper Nicolae Calancea.
With Moldova having won only one of their last 22 games and not tasted competitive victory in three years, the signs were good and as Hoolahan and McClean got to work, and chances arrived at regular intervals.
However, Ireland were unable to take any of them with Long seeing a close-range header blocked and Glenn Whelan firing just wide and blasting another effort against a defender’s legs.
But McClean was particularly wasteful as he repeatedly got himself into good positions, but failed to make the most of it, barely testing Calancea with a fourth-minute strike from distance and then missing the target with three subsequent efforts, the last of them a 42nd-minute free-kick in an inviting position.
For their part, Moldova had moved the ball well when they had it, and with Bugaev mobile and willing, they stretched the Irish rearguard on several occasions without testing goalkeeper Darren Randolph.
However, that all changed in first-half stoppage time when Shane Duffy was caught napping by Bugaev’s movement on halfway and the frontman raced away to beat Randolph, who previously had little to occupy him.
Buoyed by their finish to the first half, Moldova resumed in confident mood and went close within two minutes of the restart when Alexandru Dedov cut inside from the left and thumped a dipping right-foot shot into Randolph’s midriff.
The Ireland goalkeeper’s evening became more uncomfortable two minutes later when he could only punch a high ball to Eugen Zasavitchi under pressure from Alexandru Gatcan, but the midfielder’s first-time shot was well blocked by Ciaran Clark.
A concerted response was required and it started almost immediately with McClean getting his head to a Jonathan Walters cross, but failing to trouble Calancea, who then had to field Hoolahan’s skidding 54th-minute shot.
O’Neill was forced to make a change with 28 minutes remaining after Long went down clutching his hamstring and was replaced by winger Callum O’Dowda, a move which saw Walters promoted to the lone striker role.
Perhaps sensing a rare positive result, Moldova retreated as they attempted to cling onto a point, but succumbed with 69 minutes gone when Ireland finally calmed fraying nerves.
Hoolahan picked out James McCarthy on the edge of the box and although his shot was weak, it fell to Walters who controlled the ball and then stepped aside for McClean to slot it into the bottom corner.
Moldova visibly wilted and they were hit again within seven minutes when Seamus Coleman carved his way into the penalty area and chipped the ball across to McClean, who volleyed it sweetly past the helpless Calancea to wrap up the points.