Republic of Ireland got their UEFA EURO 2004™ qualifying campaign back on track with a deserved 2-1 victory over Georgia in Tbilisi. Gary Doherty's late header gave coach Brian Kerr victory in his first competitive match in charge as Ireland bounced back from their opening Group 10 defeats against Switzerland and Russia.
Kerr was deprived of eight regulars including his first-choice attacking partnership of Clinton Morrison and Robbie Keane. However, the makeshift replacement pairing of Damien Duff and Doherty gelled well early on against a Georgian back three, who went into the game with only 12 caps between them.
Both sides took time to settle and get to grips with the bitter cold and uneven playing surface. The match finally came to life after 12 minutes with Duff showing the ability that earned him a place in the uefa.com users' Team of the Year for 2002. His delightful back-heel took out two home defenders and put Kevin Kilbane away, but his shot was well gathered by Georgi Lomaia.
But Duff was not to be denied after 18 minutes. John O'Shea and Kilbane combined well down the left and Kilbane's cross went all the way to Lee Carsley at the far post. His shot crashed off the post but Duff pounced on the rebound and fired in from five metres out.
Georgia gradually found their way into the game and dominated possession in the final 15 minutes of the first half. However, shorn of the services of key players Kakha Kaladze from AC Milan and Shota Arveladze of Rangers FC, they carried little attacking threat. Their best effort was Aleksandr Iashvili's snapshot that skewed well wide after 39 minutes.
Georgia, with Georgi Demetradze on for the ineffectual Temuri Ketsbaia, upped their tempo after that escape and only an excellent block from Mark Kinsella denied Levan Tskitishvili after 57 minutes. Georgia were not to be denied five minutes later after Demetradze's trickery won a free-kick on the right. The set-piece was delayed after a knife was thrown on to the pitch from behind the goal but Georgia kept their mind on the game and Levan Kobiashvili's free-kick bisected Ireland's two-man wall and evaded Shay Given's despairing near-post dive.
Ireland continued to press and were rewarded seven minutes from time. Duff and poor Georgian defending were again contributory factors with the Blackburn Rovers FC player's cross met by Gary Breen at the far post. He headed across goal for the unattended Doherty, who nodded his third international goal to seal the win.
'We came back strongly'
Kerr paid tribute to his players following their resilient showing. "It was an excellent performance, well structured and disciplined," he said. "I felt we were in control apart from their spell after Georgia equalised. But we came back strongly at the end and overall deserved the win, we made their keeper work very hard."