The Republic of Ireland are well out of contention for a spot at the 2014 World Cup, but Noel King's side made sure to end their season on a stellar note.
Robbie Keane scored on a penalty in the 17th minute and John O'Shea added another nine minutes later, as Ireland concluded their UEFA qualifying bid with a 3-1 win over Kazakhstan at Aviva Stadium on Tuesday.
It was a huge day for two players, both of whom missed Friday's Group C loss to Germany. Keane needed to undergo a fitness test on Monday to see whether he was ready to go against Kazakhstan, while O'Shea was returning from a one-match suspension.
Keane, 33, has undergone much criticism during his country's failed World Cup bid, but looked in fine form on Tuesday evening. Aleksandr Kislitsyn committed a foul in the box in the 16th minute, allowing Keane to score his 61st international goal by fooling Kazakhstan goalkeeper Andrey Sidelnikov on a penalty to knot the score up at 1-1.
The visiting side took a lead in the 13th minute when Dmitriy Shomko unleashed a well-struck ball past the Irish defense and into the back of the net. Seamus Coleman had helped set up the goal with a misplaced clearance attempt that sent a spell of silence over the crowd.
Kazakhstan, who are also out of World Cup contention, seemingly had all the momentum at that point. They were ahead early on a reeling Irish side, who had sacked Giovanni Trapattoni just last month.
But Shomko's goal would be the only time Kazakhstan held any semblance of the momentum.
The Irish side looked rejuvenated under King, who is holding fort until a permanent replacement can be named. They controlled possession from the outset, working the ball around the perimeter of the Kazakhstan defense and waiting for their perfect time to strike. Holding for just under three-quarters of the match, Ireland were able to hold off the visiting side and prevent them from even getting the ball past midfield for much of the match.
O'Shea capitalized on the Kazakhs' inability to properly clear in the 26th minute. He knocked through a rebound attempt after Richard Dunne nearly scored on a failed corner-kick clearance. It was the second goal of the Sunderland defender's international career in 93 caps.
With the score 2-1 in their favor, Ireland worked hard to hold possession and avoid any costly mistakes. And, for the most part, they succeeded. David Forde faced only two shots on goal, as the Irish defense did an excellent job of blocking attempts deep in the zone and forcing mistakes by pressuring the ball.
On the rare instances where Kazakhstan were able to get a clear attempt, they went nowhere after Shomko's early score. In fact, the Kazakh midfielder even gave one back to his opponents, scoring an own goal after a dashing run into the middle by substitute Aiden McGeady.
That goal finalized the score, and Ireland were easily able to drain out the remaining time to end their World Cup qualifying season on a high note. They will finish in fourth place in Group C, as Germany and Sweden will move on for their shot at glory. With just five total points, Kazakhstan nestle in at fifth place in a six-country group.
The match for both sides comes with minimal connotations. Both had long put away their dreams of heading to Rio next year, and the only possible positive for Ireland is that they may improve their seed for Euro 2016. We're many months and matches away from seeing whether that will happen or not.
For now, at least Ireland are going out on a high note.
Man of the Match: James McCarthy (M, Ireland)
McCarthy didn't score a goal—usually the easiest way to get MOTM honors—but his efforts were integral in keeping the home country ahead. Ireland were able to keep Kazakhstan from creating any headway on their attack by employing a near-Spanish level of efficiency with their passing.
The 22-year-old Everton standout was easily his side's best creator, placing balls in advantageous spots for Keane and Andy Reid, who also had a strong performance as an aggressor. He was also smart picking his spots, choosing wisely when it was best to push the attack forward and when to move the ball back.
McCarthy is one of the great hopes for the future for Ireland. With the talent not as deep as it has been in previous generations, Ireland are hoping that McCarthy can develop into a star and help reinvigorate the country's standing among the world's best.
On nights like Tuesday, it seems likelier than ever that he can.
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