Trap's record against lesser lights provides cause for optimism
Published 11/11/2011 | 05:00
IT is the millstone around Ireland's neck, the inconvenience that supposedly will drag them down to Estonia's level in Tallinn tonight.
All week, around water coolers, in taxis and at bars up and down the country, the perils of the favourite's tag have been discussed at length in hushed tones.
Drawing the lowest ranked team possible was greeted with a hearty smile by FAI chief John Delaney, but others were more cautious, pointing to the assumption that Ireland would do better against a bigger team.
Favouritism isn't Ireland's thing, they argue. This is a nation more comfortable in the role of the plucky underdog, thriving on being written off.
As 4/11 favourites to qualify, Ireland fans are getting the jitters. RTE pundit Damien Richardson summed up the concern on Monday, saying: "I would rather we were playing a big team. We play much better against them, we're better as underdogs."
Ray Houghton reckons that Ireland are "great underdogs, some of our greatest results have come against the bigger teams."
But a quick review of the recent history of Irish football reveals that it is not an argument that rings true.
Under Giovanni Trapattoni Ireland have never lost to a lower-ranked team and, according to right-back Stephen Kelly, the players can handle the expectancy. "I don't think much of that view, to be honest," he said. "If we are favourites in the bookies that is not going to weigh on our minds."
If your currency is moral victories, then Richardson and others might be on to something.
Ireland have taken on the likes of Germany, France, Italy and Russia in recent years and either given them a go before coming up short or secured a hard-fought draw.
But ever since Jason McAteer's goal against the Dutch more than a decade ago, it is on their record against lower-ranked teams that Irish teams have lived or died.
Under Trapattoni, Ireland have played teams with a lower world ranking 17 times in competitive games. They have won 14 and drawn three. Thus, the Italian's charges have never lost to a team with a lower ranking, but they have never beaten a higher-ranked team in a competitive match.
Even Steve Staunton's charges were able to raise their game against the likes of Germany and the Louthman's team did something Trapattoni has failed to do by beating Slovakia -- a team ranked higher than Ireland.
What the experienced manager has brought into the Ireland set-up is a consistent ability to absorb expectation and beat the teams they should be beating.
Staunton might have pulled off a shock, but his team struggled against the so-called minnows.
Trapattoni's competitive win ratio against teams with a lower ranking has risen from 43pc under Staunton to 77pc, the best of any of Jack Charlton's successors.
Ireland's only play-off win came against a team ranked lower than them, Iran, although Belgium and Turkey were both ranked slightly below Ireland when they came out on top over two legs.
Estonia are ranked 34 places below Ireland and, while they have won some big games in these European qualifiers, they have lost seven of the 12 games they have played in 2011.
In contrast, Ireland have lost just one of their 12.
This form might go out the window when the teams cross the white line tonight, but there are plenty of reasons to be confident.