It's ours to lose
Forget the old suspicions – Ireland have the firepower to see off Estonia and secure place at Europe’s top table
PLAY-OFF day has dawned, but not as we know it. The sense of trepidation and fear is less to do with the opposition and more to do with Ireland.
Giovanni Trapattoni's men are hot favourites to progress, no matter how much they protest. It is a position where Irish teams have traditionally struggled, even if the Trapattoni era has been defined by an efficiency against lower ranked nations.
Old suspicion lingers. The Irish psyche is disposed towards thinking that something must be too good to be true. On paper, this mission offers a similar whiff.
This is an outstanding opportunity. In truth, it is the ideal scenario that could have unfolded once automatic qualification was out of the question.
It may sound unkind to Estonia, who have surpassed all expectations to reach this juncture.
Naturally, the unseeded underdogs also believe this is the best chance they will ever have to taste life at the top table. However, this generation of Irish players have suffered enough hard luck stories to know when a good thing comes along.
One message has stayed consistent amid the football speak this week. Robbie Keane articulated the sentiment in the crowded press room in A Le Coq Arena last night.
"We can't let this slip away," he stressed. Otherwise, it would be the end for this generation and their Italian manager.
Tallinn is an unlikely setting for a game of this magnitude.
Estonia is chilly in November, normally an appropriate metaphor for this country's attitude to the game.
This is a place that League of Ireland teams visit in warm summer months expecting victory. Bohemians, Drogheda and Shamrock Rovers have travelled to Tallinn in the last decade and encountered an apathy to the local game that makes the Irish public look like fervent followers of their own league.
The difference is that, in Estonia, the apathy has extended to the national team until this stunning charge to the play-offs.
Trapattoni has desperately tried to portray this game as a clash of David v David rather than a clash of David v Goliath.
Nevertheless, just contrast his own situation with that of his opposite number, Tarmo Ruutli.
Ireland's manager is paid €1.7m a year and presides over a team that is predominantly drawn from the Premier League.
Ruutli is paid a modest sum and, such is the parochial nature of his environment, he remains in charge of FC Nomme United, a team who play in the north-east section of Estonia's regionalised third division.
And his own commitments don't end there. When time allows, the 57-year-old still lines out for Eesti Koondis in the western section of this nation's fourth tier.
The team he is preparing for tonight's game ply their trade far and wide, ranging from the Russian and Dutch leagues to lads who earn their keep in Belarus, Azerbaijan and China. The Irish supremo compared the opposition panel to a 'mixed salad'.
This brings us to a central theme of the Trapattoni debate. There's a school of thought which suggests that the Italian is doing a fine job, considering that he has a modest set of players at his disposal compared to Jack Charlton.
However, there's a distinct lack of middle ground in the analysis, for it overlooks the fact that Ireland have a superior panel to many sides which they encounter.
Yes, man-for-man, this bunch falls well short of the Euro '88 heroes or any of Trapattoni's famous sides which he consistently drops into conversation.
Often, he mentions Platini or Boniek. Sometimes, he modernises it to say that "We don't have a Messi or a Maradona."
All correct, yet it shouldn't take away from the simple analysis that, man-for-man, Ireland have a better side than Estonia. There is no escaping that conclusion.
Of course, a strong, well organised team can overcome the deficiencies of individuals.
Alas, all the evidence would suggest that Ireland are also a better drilled unit than Ruutli's boys. Ireland have conceded once in their last nine games and lost only one game in 12 outings this year.
In their dozen starts, Ruutli's men have been defeated seven times, and shipped 23 goals.
That's quite a contrast. Estonia are physically robust and have a fondness for set-piece situations. Russian based midfielder Konstantin Vassiljev is well regarded.
Indeed, Trapattoni paid a compliment to the natives by breaking from the habit of his regime and leaving a vacancy in his starting line-up.
He says he is undecided between Jonathan Walters and Simon Cox, despite giving a strong indication earlier in the week that the former would start. "I think it's a balance to decide who is better in the first half or second half," he said.
Perhaps, the impact of Walters coming off the bench against Armenia last month has got the 72-year-old thinking that it would be nice to have that option in reserve. Or else he is just playing games to throw Ruutli off the scent.
Rather than going into hard analysis of the matter, Trapattoni grinned. He was in chirpy form and even referred to individual journalists by name for the first time since taking the job.
More than anything he seemed relaxed, talking about the need for cool heads and how his players need to feed off positive energy. "I'm not nervous," he declared, "I'm concentrated."
In a serious moment, he acknowledged the importance of an away goal, hinting that it would represent a huge step to the ultimate goal.
Considering that Estonia didn't keep a clean sheet in the campaign proper, the omens on that front are good.
As ever, the onus will be on Ireland to cover the little details.
Stephen Kelly and Stephen Ward keeping their shape so Richard Dunne and Sean St Ledger can concentrate on what they do best; Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews digging in to prevent the Estonians from taking aim; Damien Duff and Aiden McGeady bridging the gap between defence and attack, where Keane and his unnamed partner will seek to pull a rigid Estonian back-line into awkward positions.
Do that, and Shay Given will have a night that is closer to the serenity of Andorra than the extreme activity of Moscow.
And, when it matters most, the favourites will be winners alright.
Prediction: Estonia 0 Ireland 1