Ireland take four steps to heaven
Estonia 0 Ireland 4
Published 12/11/2011 | 05:00
A night beyond any visiting Irishman's wildest dreams.
Barring a collapse that would make Devon Loch's woe tame in comparison, Ireland's major tournament drought will end in Dublin on Tuesday.
It will be a victory parade rather than a nail-biter. Giovanni Trapattoni was quick to preach caution in the aftermath of this success, but he will know that the mission is accomplished.
"The cat is in the sack," he said. "But the sack is not closed. We have to be serious."
Realistically, though, Trapattoni can start to think with confidence about a trip to Poland and Ukraine and a further two years in the job after his team eventually coasted to success against an Estonian side that finished with nine men.
"I'm not God," said the emotional Italian, but as Ireland racked up the goals, the 72-year-old must have wondered if this was some kind of divine present to compensate for the pain of Paris.
The natives cried foul at refereeing decisions, yet there was no injustice here. They were rightly reduced to 10 men in the first half when Andrei Stepanov was sent off for two bookable offences and, while the second dismissal in the final quarter was less clear-cut, Ireland were three goals up at that juncture. It was already game over.
"This is one of the most important victories," said Trapattoni, in what veered into a victory speech. "We came into a situation in Ireland where some players did not answer the call or did not bother sometimes, but we have built a team and picked it on the merit. Two years we weren't 100pc ready but now we are. This is a great satisfaction."
Ultimately, this was an exercise in steamrolling rather than a display of footballing beauty. Par for the course in this regime.
Trapattoni's men delivered a performance in keeping with many others during his reign. The emphatic final scoreline derived from Estonia's inability to cope with the pressure of the occasion. "A bad night for us," sighed home manager Tarmo Ruutli.
Victory was a warm tonic on a chilly evening in Tallinn.
They're not used to nights like this at the A Le Coq arena. Punters were still filtering into the ground midway through the first half, with long queues visible before kick-off. The latecomers missed a goal. An Irish goal.
Thirteen frantic minutes had passed before the breakthrough. Estonia had actually started brightly without any semblance of a cutting edge. Roared on by a passionate crowd, they were high on energy but low on quality of application. Then, Ireland attacked and found an end product.
Aiden McGeady twisted and turned down the left flank and the Spartak Moscow winger, who sometimes disappoints with the final ball, found the perfect delivery. Keith Andrews rose highest in the box to steer an accurate header beyond the despairing lunge of Sergei Pareiko. Pandemonium in the away section.
The fact that a central midfielder was that far forward suggested that Ireland sensed vulnerability. Despite Trapattoni's conservative reputation, his teams have a good habit of scoring early on their travels. The problem has been retaining it.
Naturally, Estonia produced a response, and a diagonal ball which caught out Stephen Kelly gave Dmitri Kruglov a chance that he fluffed. More pressure followed, with the dangerous Konstantin Vassiljev twice taking aim from distance, with the second giving Shay Given a seriously nervous moment.
As he had indicated earlier in the week, Trapattoni started Jon Walters alongside Robbie Keane up front. He suggested on Thursday it was a dilemma, but he opted for the physicality of the Stoke striker, even if it meant giving him a first competitive start as part of a combination who had never played together before.
Walters was prominent early and then fired a half-chance over the bar after a free-kick broke his way in the period after the opener. However, the focus quickly shifted to the other end of the pitch, with white shirts pegged back as the natives probed.
It helped that the Estonians lacked real fluency in possession, a flaw that was exposed in the incident that put Ireland in a dream position. A poor pass from midfielder Aleksandr Dmitrjiev under pressure from McGeady wasn't anticipated by Stepanov, but Keane reacted and was taken down by the veteran, a survivor from the previous meeting here in 2001.
Irish players cried for a straight red as the Estonian was the last man, and Trapattoni harangued the fourth official when Hungarian ref Viktor Kassai initially pulled out a yellow. He didn't realise that Stepanov had been booked minutes earlier for bringing a McGeady run to an abrupt end. Marco Tardelli told Trapattoni the good news; the hosts were a man down. "It was our mistake," admitted Ruutli.
Estonia switched to a 4-4-1 and continued to enjoy time on the ball. Keane implored his colleagues to push up, but inspiration was lacking and the interval brought a tedious spell to an end.
Trapattoni gave a half-time team-talk and his side emerged resembling a unit with the extra man. Duff unleashed a shot on goal that Pareiko collected.
Alas, Estonia responded well, with Trapattoni irate on the sideline as his team continued to give the ball away.
"With 11 v 10, we could have played better," he acknowledged. "We didn't use the ball well."
Ireland flirted with trouble when Glenn Whelan gave away a free kick outside the box, with the subsequent low delivery turned behind by Richard Dunne with an Estonian lurking.
It was a tense stint, and Ruutli turned to his bench, introducing both Vladimir Voskoboinkov and Joel Lindpere, with the latter given a hero's welcome after coming out of international retirement to be involved in these games.
A stoppage forced by an injury to Duff gave the Irish a chance to regroup, and the second goal followed. Walters was both the instigator and the scorer.
Again, his upper-body strength brought a clearance to earth, and he fed Keane who in turn released McGeady. The left-winger's shot was parried by Pareiko into the path of Keane, who scooped to the back post where his strike partner rose to dispatch.
The bench could relax. Ireland sniffed blood and really started to go for the jugular. Andrews burst into the Estonian half and was brought to the ground. He dusted himself down for the free-kick and unleashed a rasper that Pareiko again generously pushed into the direction of Keane.
This time, the skipper had time and space to apply the final touch himself.
Estonia must have thought their night couldn't get any worse, but it did. Raio Piiroja, who endured a torrid evening, halted a Keane advance and the Hungarian official reached into his pocket for the yellow that brought the home captain's night to a premature end.
Trapattoni utilised his bench, with Stephen Hunt, Keith Fahey and Simon Cox sent into the fray. Cox replaced the outstanding Walters, who was high-fived by his manager on the way to the dugout.
Almost immediately, Hunt raced into the box and was fouled by Ats Purje. Penalty for Ireland and another goal for Keane. Hugs all around and they continued at the final whistle with frenzied embraces in the away end as the refereeing team were given hell by the locals.
Ireland's players didn't notice. They were in heaven.
ESTONIA - S Pareiko; E Jaager, R Piiroja, Ti Rahn, R Klavan; T Kink (A Purje 68), A Dimitriyev, M Vunk (J Lindpere 61), D Kruglov; K Vasilyev; J Ahjupera (V Voskoboinikov 55).
REP OF IRELAND -- S Given; S Kelly, R Dunne, S St Ledger, S Ward; D Duff (S Hunt 73) , G Whelan (K Fahey 78), K Andrews, A McGeady; R Keane, J Walters (S Cox 83).
Ref -- V Kassai (Hungary).