Feeling nervous about the Czech Republic play off clash with Montenegro? Well, Irish nerves are also jangling as they look to end their playoff misery, Richard Flynn previews their crucial clash with Estonia.
The European Championships in West Germany in 1988 was the last to feature a Republic of Ireland side. The one nil win over England courtesy of a Ray Houghton header in the first group game is still talked about and indeed celebrated in Ireland. The ‘who put the ball in the English net’ tee shirt went on to be a best seller. But a subsequent draw with the then Soviet Union and a loss to the Netherlands sent the Irish crashing out in the first round.
Twenty three years on and a two legged tie with relative minnows Estonia represents a real opportunity for the Republic to feature in next summer’s championships. After finishing second in a group in which an average Russian side emerged top meant that the Republic weren’t feared by many by the time the play off draw came around.
Estonia, ranked 59 in the latest FIFA world rankings were the plum draw for any side and so when former Polish manager Zbigniew Boniek pulled the Estonians out of the pot to play Ireland, FAI Chief Executive John Delaney couldn’t refrain from laughing. The cries of Trapattoni being a lucky manager grew louder. The Estonians seemed nonplussed by it all.
This game is as much a last chance saloon for an ageing squad as it is for their evergreen manager. For players of the ilk of Given, Keane, Dunne and Duff these championships mark a likely last crack at a major tournament. Each have given immense and unwavering support to the green jersey for over a decade. Dunne in fact played some of his best football in this qualifying campaign, almost singlehandedly pulling a draw out of Moscow when the Irish goal was peppered all night long. Trapattoni has been in the position just over three years now and after failure to reach the world cup in 2010, via a controversial playoff loss to France; this is seen by most as the 72 year old Italians time to deliver and justify his generous €2 million annual salary.
Trapattoni has split the Irish public down the middle. His supporters will point to a team who is hard to beat, indicated by just 8 losses from 39 games under his tenure. His detractors will latch on to the unattractive brand of football played under the Italian and his unwillingness to introduce younger players in to the fold. Seamus Coleman and James McCarthy are two young players in particular who haven’t found favour with Trapattoni.
He is nothing if not stubborn and there isn’t much guesswork needed when it comes to his team sheets. Trapattoni has found his formula, a strong back four supported by two holding midfielders, two wide players usually in the shape of Duff and McGeady with Robbie Keane leading the line supported by Kevin Doyle. Creative flair doesn’t poll high in the lexicon of ‘Il Trap’. Being Italian, perhaps surprise on the part of the Irish public should be reserved. There is a genuine anger amongst some fans however that players like Coleman who offers flair aren’t being given a chance.
Friday nights first leg in Tallinn (20:45 CET) sees John O Shea and Shane Long miss out through injury with Kevin Doyle suspended. The job of replacing Doyle will fall to either Jonathan Walters or Simon Cox with Stephen Kelly likely to get the nod to replace O Shea. Both Cox and Walters impressed in the final qualifying game against Armenia, albeit Walters only featuring late on as a substitution.
The Estonians who have never qualified for a World Cup or European Championships will leave nothing in reserve over the two legs. Head coach Tarmo Ruutli reports no fresh injury concerns ahead of Friday nights clash. Midfielder Konstantin Vassiljev (pictured left) looks the obvious danger man with 5 goals alone in the qualifying stages. Their players are assembled from lesser leagues all over Europe with midfielder Lindpere plying his trade with the New York Red Bulls in the MLS. Having emerged second in their group, a point ahead of Serbia, they have to be given respect but the Republic should have enough over the two legs to claim their first European Championships berth since 1988.
The bookies make the Republic strong favourites to qualify but a play off record of one win in the last six will leave many Irish supporters nervous nonetheless. For the players in the twilight of their careers qualification would represent a fitting send off. Failure to do so will be seen as a major disappointment for a squad of this maturity. It will also signal the end of Trapattoni’s reign as Irish manager, most likely. High stakes then.