A rare brace for Daryl Murphy helped the Republic of Ireland to victory over Moldova and set-up a second-place battle against Wales in Cardiff.
The Nottingham Forest striker marked his 30th senior cap with his second and third goals for his country on a night when victory was the only option if Ireland were to keep their hopes of emerging from Group D alive.
They now head to Cardiff on Monday having to beat Chris Coleman’s Euro 2016 semi-finalists, who are ranked 21 places above them by FIFA, to stand a chance of progressing from a wide-open group.
They do so with Martin O’Neill having reaped the rewards of his decision to go for broke as he started with strikers Murphy and Shane Long, playmaker Wes Hoolahan and Bristol City winger Callum O’Dowda, who performed admirably in his first competitive start.
The last time Moldova won a competitive game was in October 2013, and their hopes of ending that run in Dublin were dealt a significant blow with less than two minutes on the clock when Alexandru Dedov could only help on Stephen Ward’s long throw-in and Murphy pounced to stab home.
It was just Ireland’s third goal of the campaign at the Aviva Stadium, where draws have proved costly, but they did not have to wait too much longer for the fourth when Wes Hoolahan picked out Ward with an exquisite cross-field pass.
The full-back looked up before sending his cross to the far post, where Murphy rose unopposed to head it across keeper Ilie Cebanu to extend his side’s lead.
Murphy’s potency, Hoolahan’s invention and the pace of O’Dowda caused repeated problems for Moldova and had Shane Long had his shooting boots on, he too might have got himself among the goals with Cebanu making a vital 23rd-minute block after the striker had earlier fired inches wide.
However, Ireland did not have it all their own way with Alexandru Dedov and Artur Ionita lively behind lone striker Radu Ginsari, although it was Sergiu Platica who brought the best out of keeper Darren Randolph with a dipping 26th-minute volley which required a flying fingertip save.
That said, defenders Ciaran Clark and Shane Duffy both went close in the dying minutes of the first half with the visitors struggling to defend set-pieces.
To their credit, Moldova returned in determined fashion to make life uncomfortable for Ireland, although without troubling Randolph unduly, and Murphy might have completed his hat-trick when he glanced Hoolahan’s 58th-minute cross towards goal, only for defender Vitalie Bordian to get in a block.
Long’s misery deepened within three minutes when O’Dowda’s blocked shot after another enterprising run by Hoolahan fell for him, but to his evident horror, he stabbed wide of an open goal.
Murphy only just failed to get to Cyrus Christie’s driven 76th-minute cross ahead of Cebanu, and he and Hoolahan were applauded warmly as they left the pitch two minutes later with their work for the evening done.
Alexandru Gatcan was dismissed in stoppage time after thrusting his head towards substitute Harry Arter, and the final whistle signalled a successful conclusion to the first phase of the October mission ahead of a mouth-watering finale on Monday.