Euro 2012: Opportunity knocks for Ireland
Reasons to be optimistic
THIS is unusual. Normally when we reach this stage of a major tournament process, it is Ireland who are being patronised.
The fancied, seeded team will offer platitudes towards the smaller country, stress that they shouldn't be underestimated and point out that no bad teams reach this stage of the competition. There will also be the mandatory reference to Irish spirit.
Now, we have the role reversal. For the Euro 2012 play-off, Ireland are the nation cautioning against the perils of tempting fate and highlighting the features of an Estonian team that is clearly better than the sum of its parts.
There was no jubilation from Giovanni Trapattoni yesterday. While FAI chief executive John Delaney wore a broad smile in Krakow, Trapattoni issued a strongly worded warning about the dangers of complacency.
"That is just not true," said the 72-year-old, responding to a question which suggested that it would be a shock if Ireland didn't take this opportunity to book a place in Poland and Ukraine next summer.
"Why are we favourites?" he asked. "What notions do you have in your heads that make us favourites? This is an international team which, like us, has made it to the play-offs.
"We are playing against a team who has the same right to be there as us. They had a good qualification campaign and have earned their place at the play-offs through hard-fought results.
"I would not like that we have become big-headed -- a Brazil, Argentina, Spain or Germany overnight. Have we forgotten where we are in the FIFA rankings?"
Unfortunately, FIFA's questionable system of rating its national teams only serves to increase the Irish confidence.
Ireland have moved up to 29th in the world, with Estonia down in 58th. The other three unseeded teams, Bosnia (22), Montenegro (26) and Turkey (27) are higher in the list.
The stats men will favour Irish progression, but is it that simple?
Unquestionably, Ireland have enjoyed some luck in this campaign, both in Moscow and against Armenia on Tuesday night.
But they weren't lucky to be in the seeded category; they earned it, considering they have lost just once in the 20 qualifying group matches they have played under Giovanni Trapattoni. The consistency in those two campaigns made up 80pc of the calculations for the UEFA co-efficient.
In the same period, Estonia have lost half of their qualifiers -- six in the World Cup 2010 tilt, and four on their way to the Euro 2012 play-offs (twice against Italy, at home to Slovenia and away to the Faroe Islands).
They have never reached a major finals before and this progression has caused surprise in a country where football barely registers.
Ireland's squad plays at a higher level, with the Estonians spread around Europe. If injuries hit between now and November, Trapattoni also has far greater strength in depth. If the Estonians lose bodies, coach Tarmo RÃ¼Ã¼tli must look to his local league, which is weaker than the League of Ireland.
On the other hand, Trapattoni can call upon form Premier League players who struggle to make his bench, or even his squad in some cases. Take Seamus Coleman, James McCarthy, Leon Best and Marc Wilson, for example.
With play-off games likely to be tight, Ireland's superior defence is also a factor. Trapattoni's men conceded just seven goals in their group, with the Estonian rearguard breached on 14 occasions.
REASONS TO BE PESSIMISTIC
Straight after the final whistle on Tuesday night, Liam Brady, a supporter of Trapattoni, expressed his fear about an Irish team being seeded.
"We don't make good favourites," he said. "It seems to be a mental block. They (the players) lack confidence, they lack belief they can actually control the game. You've got to be able to handle that."
The Irish squad have to ignore the euphoria surrounding the draw. Trapattoni acknowledged they were nervous on Tuesday when Armenia came to town, so how will they cope on the first time that the second leg of a play-off is staged in Dublin?
Fearing a repeat of Paris-like skulduggery, Trapattoni was desperate to secure home advantage for the second leg, and Zbigniew Boniek also delivered that gift.
Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that Estonia's better performances have come on their travels. They won in Serbia and Slovenia and also took full points from Belfast, so they will have little fear in that regard.
Trapattoni immediately spoke to his former player, Cesare Prandelli, now coach of Italy, who topped that group. Italy were a goal down at half-time in Tallinn, but came back to win, and strolled to a 3-0 success on home turf.
"Cesare has given me good advice," said Trapattoni. "He told me they have a very strong midfield."
Departing Northern Ireland boss Nigel Worthington last night also hailed the Estonians' abilities in that area of the park. Considering Ireland's inability to really impose themselves in the engine room, it is a significant warning.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Rewind to Warsaw in February of last year, where the initial qualifying draw took place.
As Delaney indicated yesterday, if Ireland had been offered 180 minutes against Estonia, with the prize being a second European Championships appearance, they would have taken it in a heartbeat.
Sure, there will be stifling pressure. For many of the senior players, it could be the last chance to represent their country on the biggest stage.
And, for Trapattoni, it is the opportunity to banish the ghosts of thierry Henry and Paris and secure the contract extension he so desperately desires.
The strength of the 72-year-old's tenure has been his team's efficiency in the area of seeing off lower-ranked teams, with heavyweights Russia and France the only sides to inflict competitive defeats.
It may not be pretty, but on November 15 few will care if a summer of fun is on the horizon in Poland and Ukraine.
Trapattoni's charges will never forgive themselves if they pass up this opportunity.