As much as they might not want to think about it, there’s no doubt that Ireland are the favorites in their Euro 2012 qualifying playoff against Estonia, and if they fail to emerge from the two legs victorious, it will be considered a major shock, to say the least.
Ireland are tipped to come away from Friday’s first leg in Tallinn in the driver’s seat, even though they’ll head into the match with a few selection-related issues. But even if Giovanni Trapattoni’s side don’t head into the second leg in Dublin with a decided advantage, football odds will heavily favor them to take care of business at the Aviva Stadium and take their place on the big stage alongside the likes of Spain, Germany, and Trapattoni’s home country, Italy. Given that Ireland have allowed only one goal in their last nine overall matches and conceded only seven in qualifying, it’s tough to see anything other than an Irish triumph in this tie.
However, it’s understandable, for a number of reasons, why there would be apprehension among players, staff, and supporters about acknowledging the favorite role.
On paper, Ireland clearly possess the edge in talent, with a bevy of players who ply or have plied their trade in the Premier League, arguably the best league in the world, and no shortage of names that are known by many, like Robbie Keane, Shay Given, Richard Dunne, and Damien Duff, all of whom were a part of Ireland’s last experience at a major tournament, the 2002 World Cup.
Ireland are also led by a managerial great in Giovanni Trapattoni, who possesses a laundry list of managerial successes, who has been in these situations before and knows what to expect, and has seen his fair share of ups and downs (far more ups though, it has to be said) in more than 35 years of management.
Of the potential opponents Ireland could have drawn – Bosnia, Estonia, Montenegro, and Turkey – Estonia was perhaps the most favorable. Bosnia aren’t short on talent and very nearly pipped France top spot in their group, Turkey are a strong, strong foe when they bring their best, and Montenegro were unbeaten on home soil in qualifying.
At the same time though, they might be the most dangerous (and Estonia were equally happy to draw Ireland in place of the stronger, more established sides). But as the saying goes, games aren’t won on paper, and for all that Estonia might lack in quality and experience in these situations, they are here on the same merits that Ireland are, and that’s reason enough to take them very, very seriously. It may have taken more getting hot at the right time than consistent performing, but that’s all it takes sometimes.
Estonia were a bad four-minute sequence away from a shock home result against Italy in an early qualifier, and they went on to post an impressive 3-1 away win against Serbia. But it looked like they were headed for another low finish, especially after a 2-0 away defeat against the Faroe Islands in September. However, that defeat to the Faroes was where things would take a turn, as they would win each of their last three qualifiers to edge out Serbia for second by a point.
And though they haven’t had a sniff of real success until now, now that they are, don’t believe for a second that they will just roll over against Ireland. There’s real confidence and belief there now, if comments by Middlesbrough man Tarmo Kink this week are any indication.
And what they may lack in talent, they certainly make up for in resiliency. Of Estonia’s six positive results in qualifying (five wins and a draw), five (four wins and the draw, a 1-1 home draw with Serbia) were of the dramatic variety. Their qualifying campaign started with two goals in the dying minutes to beat the Faroes 2-1 in Tallinn, and it ended with two late goals by star midfielder Konstantin Vassiljev in Belfast to overcome Northern Ireland by that same scoreline.
It’s also worth mentioning that though they lack experience in situations like these, they aren’t lacking in experience in general, which definitely counts for something. 17 of the 23 players in their playoff squad have more than 30 caps, while nine have more than 50. Sure, part of it can be attributed to having a smaller pool of players to choose from than a bigger and more prominent nation. But it means these players know one another’s strengths, weaknesses, and tendencies, and they might have a bond on and off of the pitch that some more prominent nations don’t, and familiarity and continuity are two valuable assets when you\’re going into a pressure-packed situation.
And speaking of pressure, there’s far less on Estonia than there is on Ireland. Estonia weren’t expected to be here and won’t be expected to win, and even if their best isn’t good enough to defeat Ireland, they’ll be able to go out with their heads held high, knowing that they’ve taken a big step for Estonian football and its reputation and standing in Europe.
But for Ireland, defeat would be crushing, to put it simply. It’s one thing to play your hearts out, only to be denied cruelly like they were against France in their 2010 World Cup qualifying playoff, but it would have a different kind of sting if they were to lose this tie, especially with the second leg on home soil.
Ireland will be attempting to put that last playoff heartbreak behind them, and they’ll also be looking to break a drought that might surprise a casual fan. Ireland haven’t been to the European Championships since 1988, when the likes of Houghton, Hughton, McGrath, McCarthy, and Stapleton led Ireland in their first appearance in a major tournament proper. In that tournament, held in Germany, Ireland were group with England, the Soviet Union (eventual runners-up), and the Netherlands (eventual winners), and after a 1-0 win over England and a 1-1 draw with the Soviets, a draw against the Netherlands would have sent them through to the semis. They were on course for that draw, but Wim Kieft’s 82nd-minute goal gave the Netherlands a 1-0 win, which sent them through as group runners-up, a point behind the Soviets and a point ahead of Ireland.
That was the start of their most successful period to date, as the legendary Jack Charlton led them to Euro 1988, the 1990 World Cup, where they lost to hosts Italy in the quarterfinals, and the 1994 World Cup, where they were knocked out by the Netherlands, and they also narrowly missed out on qualifying for Euro 1992 (finished second behind England by a point) and Euro 1996 (lost to the Netherlands in a playoff).
Since then, their only major tournament appearance was in the 2002 World Cup, where they reached the second round. So, to be in a position to bring success that hasn’t been seen often comes with a lot of pressure, and to bring that success would be momentous, irrespective of the opponent, two things that are likely somewhere in the minds of those players as they prepare, especially Given, Keane, Dunne, and Duff, who might be facing their last chance to play in a major tournament again.
And it could be all too easy to let worry creep in, with forward Kevin Doyle suspended for today’s first leg, several players a yellow away from a second-leg suspension, and a few fitness concerns.
But if the stingy Irish back line stands tall again, and all stay cool, calm, and collected, there will be dancing and delirium in Dublin on Tuesday night, because Ireland are a superior side, even with a few absences or bruises.
But can they and will handle the pressure of being favorites? Or will the resilient Estonians pull off their biggest stunner yet and leave the Irish feeling despair and disappointment once again?