Robbie Keane: We always believed we could qualify automatically for Euro 2016
Robbie Keane has insisted the Republic of Ireland never gave up on their dream of automatic qualification for Euro 2016 after seeing them blast the race for France wide open.
The 35-year-old Ireland captain, who for so long carried the nation's hopes with his goalscoring prowess, was an unused substitute on Thursday evening as his team-mates produced a performance of real grit and determination to pave the way for a stunning 1-0 victory over world champions Germany in Dublin.
Shane Long's 70th-minute winner, coupled with Poland's 2-2 draw in Scotland, ensured that the Germans, the Poles and the Irish will all head into Sunday evening's final round of fixtures knowing each could yet top Group D.
For Martin O'Neill's men, whose hopes of claiming even third place and a play-off berth looked forlorn when they drew with Scotland at the Aviva Stadium in June, that is a remarkable feat, but one Keane is adamant they never felt was beyond them.
He said: "It's something that we believed that we could do anyway from the start. We knew it was going to be a difficult group. We always believed that we'd have a chance to qualify automatically, if not the play-offs.
"Now we've guaranteed the play-off no matter what, we look forward to Sunday's game."
Ireland's hopes now rest on the trip to Warsaw's Narodowy Stadium, where a fourth successive qualifier victory or a high-scoring draw - better than the 1-1 the Poles achieved in Dublin - will see them clinch automatic qualification.
Keane, a veteran of the 2002 World Cup and Euro 2012 finals, accepts that the days when his was the first name on the teamsheet are drawing to a close with 142 senior international appearances and 67 goals behind him, but is ready to play whatever part is required of him.
He said: "I keep saying, it doesn't matter who is playing or not. It's about the nation and about everybody pulling together to try to achieve one goal, and that's to qualify for France.
"We've all had our times through our careers when we're playing or not, and the time has come for some other players. All the other players in that dressing room, myself included, we're all going to get opportunities. There are going to be times when we'll need myself or the others in that dressing room.
"That's why it's always important to be ready."
Defender John O'Shea, who collected his 107th cap against the Germans, marshalled a defence repeatedly stretched to its limits and later paid tribute to the spirit engendered by O'Neill, number two Roy Keane and their staff during their reign to date.
O'Shea said: "A manager is always going to be asked questions when things aren't going so well or performances aren't up to scratch, but the management team have built up a great camaraderie in the squad.
"You've seen that in the impact that the subs have had coming on in games, the late goals we've been able to get.
"It's not by accident. There's a great spirit amongst the lads, and we'll need it again on Sunday."