reports from Lansdowne Road
Republic of Ireland 2 Latvia 1
Two goals by the 37-year-old John Aldridge, breaking spirited Latvian resistance and taking him to within one of Frank Stapleton's record of 20 for the Republic of Ireland,last night ensured qualification from Group Six will go down to the wire next month.
Victory over Portugal in Lisbon, a tall order at the best of times, would guarantee the Republic a place in next summer's European Championship finals across the water. Second place, however, could oblige them to undergo an ordeal by play-off at Liverpool in December.
The rapture which greeted the final whistle was tinged with considerable relief. The capacity crowd in Dublin had not witnessed one of the more exhilarating performances of the Jack Charlton era, but Aldridge's double meant they at least avoided the doomsday scenario of elimination and the possible resignation of their manager.
Even after the self-styled "oldest swinger in town" swung into action, scoring twice in three minutes with two-thirds of the game gone, the Republic never looked capable of emulating their three handsome victories over Latvia in the past two years. On the contrary, a goal by Vitas Rimkus left them hanging on anxiously in the last 12 minutes.
Afterwards, Charlton was asked about comments attributed to a senior official of the FA of Ireland, who suggested that he would bring down the curtain on a nine-year reign if the Republic failed to qualify. "I probably would have left if we'd lost this one," Charlton admitted. "We take it game by game, and if we lose in Portugal my answer may well be the same.
"This result keeps us in with a shout after our abysmal summer, though our backsides were hanging out after we gave away a goal at a crucial time."
The tension was almost tangible during the first half, in which the Republic fell into the trap of pumping long balls in the rough direction of Niall Quinn. The surges from midfield of Jason McAteer and Andy Townsend offered greater hope, although Latvia's swift counter-attacking occasionally had nerve-ends jangling.
Quinn was just beginning to betray his frustration at what he deemed the illegal attentions of his red-shirted shadow when he helped to engineer the breakthrough. Holding up Gary Kelly's cross with his back to goal, the high-rise striker laid a neat pass into the stride of Steve Staunton. Igor Stepanov tripped the midfielder, allowing Aldridge to score emphatically from the spot.
Charlton confessed he had not been able to watch the penalty, but before long he was saluting a second goal. Staunton was again involved, curling a free-kick in from the right flank which Aldridge met with a strong glancing header - his eighth goal against Latvia.
Alan Kelly had to touch a volley by Mikhail Zemlinski on to his crossbar, only to be beaten moments later when Rimkus exploited a lapse by Phil Babb. The show now moves on to the Stadium of Light, though Northern Ireland could do their neighbours a substantial favour against Austria on the same evening.
REPUBLIC OF IRELAND (4-4-2): A Kelly (Sheffield United); G Kelly (Leeds), McGrath (Aston Villa), Babb (Liverpool), Phelan (Manchester City); McAteer (Liverpool), Kenna (Blackburn), Townsend, Staunton (both Aston Villa); Quinn (Manchester City), Aldridge (Tranmere). Substitutes: D Kelly (Sunderland) for Aldridge, 79; Kennedy (Liverpool) for D Kelly, 84.
LATVIA (3-2-4-1): Karaveyev (Zwickau); Shevljakov (Skonto Riga), Stepanov (Skonto), Zakreshevski (RAF Jelgava); Troickis, Astafiev (both Skonto); Babichev, Zemlinski (both Skonto), Zeiberlins (Hapoel Tel-Aviv), Ivanov (Skonto); Rimkus (Amstrig). Substitute: Jelisejevs (Skonto) for Babichevs 71.
Referee: J-A Marin (Spain).Reuse content