Estonia vs Republic of Ireland: A. Le Coq Arena, Tallinn
A return to the dreaded two-game shootout but this one feels different. Ireland are no longer the underdogs and we are shifting uncomfortably in our seats. Let’s put ourselves in Estonia’s boots, however. They lost four games in qualifying but wins away to the North, Slovenia, and Serbia catapulted them into dreamland. Then the play-off draw gave them the easiest of the top seeds, the Irish who haven’t qualified for a tournament in ten years. With the game drawing ever closer, the Estonians are giddy with anticipation. A first ever tournament beckons. They are us in 1987.
They may be home in the first leg but Estonia have gone to Slovenia and Serbia and won. They are not the least bit afraid of Dublin. The new Aviva Stadium has had rows of empty seats for each of Ireland’s home qualifiers and the old Lansdowne Roar has yet to be revived.
And now on the eve of the first leg, the opponents have a striking crisis, with suspensions, injuries, and dangerman Robbie Keane perceived to be operating below 100% fitness. Scares to Richard Dunne and Shay Given who sat out training in Malahide means football fever can barely be contained in Tallinn.
Make no mistake about it, Estonia think they can win.
But they lost to the Faroe Islands. Let’s repeat that. They lost to the Faroe Islands.
Had Ireland drawn Estonia in our qualifying group, anything less than six points would have been deemed a disaster. So why are we so unsure of ourselves now?
Giovanni Trapattoni has turned the Republic into a team that does not lose. Yet, in the big tests, against Slovakia and Russia, Ireland don’t win either. Ireland will be set up to draw in Tallinn as we have been in every other away game. Not instructed to draw, but the system and lack of any creativity in midfield means winning when it matters is a challenge for this Irish team. Even if we earn a victory in Tallinn, we will still need to go out to win the game in Dublin.
Against Slovakia, we needed to triumph at home to top the group and we bottled it. The lesson Russia gave us in the Aviva, coupled with their annihilationn of us in Moscow, only repelled by a heroic defensive rearguard, means Irish fans are wary of a team as limited as Estonia.
We are nervous. And unless we earn a decisive victory in Tallinn, that trepidation will be palpable in the stands in Lansdowne Road on Tuesday night.
The big question regarding the Irish line-up is who will start up front with Stoke’s Jonathan Walters set to get the nod. He’s a man in form and his cameo against Armenia was full of endeavour and attacking threat. His physical presence could be the key needed to unlock Estonia away.
We can be thankful too that if any complacency should creep into the Irish side, one man who never switches off is Shay Given. Much has been made of the fact that this could be the last chance saloon for our our former young guns like Dunne, Keane, O’Shea, Duff and Given. Desire to win for the senior members won’t be a problem.
It’s likely that Duff and McGeady will again provide Ireland’s two main attacking outlets. At full flight, they have the potential to run Estonia ragged but McGeady needs to step up his defensive contribution especially if Stephen Ward is selected and repeats the shaky display we saw in Moscow.
Assistant Marco Tardelli has proffered that the team has forgotten about Paris. Yet, Giovanni Trapattoni’s team-talk would do well to revisit that heartache. There could prove no greater motivation to a squad of players, as evidenced by Stephen Kelly’s remarks, that still bears the scars.
Ireland’s fans’ concern stems from the lack of confidence in our central midfield pairing. Estonia’s wins on the road only increase the fear that, yet again, an opposing side will dictate play in the engine room. If we surrender possession, no matter how heavily we are favoured going into the match, we hand the initiative to Estonia.
Andrews and Whelan need to step up to the plate big time. Quotes from the Stoke midfielder have been repeated this week that the Irish players merely do what Trapattoni instructs them to and no more.
It’s a cop out that papers over the cracks of too many limp performances. And it is these displays that have Irish supporters so nervous facing two games against a side that lost to the Faroe Islands.
A dominant showing on Friday will take the wind out of Estonia’s sails. They are high on the potent air of hope. They are so close to a first ever major championships, (not counting the 1924 Olympics). Ireland must suck the life out of those aspirations with a defensive wall every bit as imposing as the one which roared at Russia, “You shall not pass”. And in attack, Trapattoni must realise that a goal for Ireland in Tallinn, especially early on could prove a devastating blow to the shaky belief of a nation still revelling in the novelty of it all.
Ireland, on the other hand, have been here before. We’ve had too many parties spoilt in the last decade and the feeling that we were burgled in Paris two years ago is impossible to shake. Sorry Estonia, on another day we’d be cheering you on but we’re coming to your house on Friday and we’re going to wreck the gaff.
Póg Mo Goal features in the latest edition of the YBIG Footie Show podcast presented by Dave O’Grady.
On this week’s programme, Dave is joined by Irish fans Paul in London and John in Dublin.
There are also debuts for James from PogMoGoal.com and British journalist Mark Holmes of Sky Sports, TeamTalk.com, Football 365 and Sporting Life.
The discussion topics include:
Ireland’s playoff clash with Estonia
The starting eleven (Walters or Cox)
The perception of the Irish team in Britain
Eligibility debate (Jermaine Pennant etc)
FAI Cup final
League of Ireland
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