Ward gets party started as leveller fails to spoil carnival atmosphere
(Ireland qualify, winning 5-1 on agg),
THE record books will show that Ireland's qualification for Euro 2012 was secured in Dublin, but this was an occasion which confirmed that it was game over in Tallinn.
This was a surreal kind of play-off game, devoid of the nerves and trepidation which define this country's relationship with the two-legged knockout format.
Estonia fought bravely to come away with a draw on the night, yet the capacity crowd in Dublin 4 spent the dying stages waiting for the final whistle and the subsequent party.
The Dutch referee sensed it and didn't even bother with injury-time.
It was just that kind of evening, although Giovanni Trapattoni will point out that it extends Ireland's unbeaten run to 11 matches. The only blot on the copybook was the concession of a second goal in that timeframe.
Nobody will be too concerned this morning, though. The embraces at full-time offered a beautiful contrast from the shock and heartbreak of Paris two years ago this week.
This was the night where Lansdowne Road went green with people rather than empty seats, with the '3'-sponsored cards that were held up as a pre-match display taking on a different form after kick-off as they were crafted into paper planes and aimed in the direction of the pitch by the majority of the capacity crowd.
It was typical of the carnival atmosphere that, for long periods, turned the match itself into a sideshow.
Estonia coach Tarmo Ruutli had no option but to go for it, and made seven changes -- three enforced -- in a vain bid to turn the tide.
He deployed a positive 4-4-2 formation which only succeeded in giving the hosts more room, with Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews prominent and clearly enjoying the fact that they weren't outnumbered in the engine room.
Despite the position of comfort, Ireland were disciplined from the outset, determined to protect the defensive record that the entire party cherish.
They should have taken an early lead, with stand-in Estonian netminder Pavel Londak delivering an early indication that he was worth testing as he generously parried a Damien Duff shot into the path of Robbie Keane, who should have scored, but instead missed the target from close range.
The nature of the occasion meant there was no recrimination. The planes continued to rain down, as the misery piled on for Estonia when their most effective player from the first leg, Dmitri Kruglov, was lost to injury.
With the visiting left-back out of the game, it was his opposite number in a green shirt who came to the fore. Stephen Ward overlapped and sent in a dangerous cross that was put behind for a corner.
From the subsequent Duff delivery, Kevin Doyle headed goalwards, and Londak again performed the function of a squash wall, sending the ball bouncing out into the path of Ward who converted for his second international goal.
The extreme pessimists could relax. Estonia needed five goals now, an improbable scenario given this Irish team's defensive record.
Alas, 10 minutes into the second half, the men in blue were level on the night, with midfielder Konstantin Vassiljev living up to his pre-match reputation as a man who can take aim from distance.
Given space, the Russian-based playmaker let rip from 25 yards out with a swerving attempt that deceived Shay Given and gave the travelling support something to cheer about at last.
For the Donegal man, it was an unfortunate moment on the night where he picked up his 120th cap, passing out Northern Ireland great Pat Jennings.
Trapattoni responded by sending for Aiden McGeady, and his first contribution was a clever reverse pass to release Keane. The striker's shot was blocked by diving Estonian bodies.
Then, Doyle sprung to life, collecting a Given punt and embarking on a run that culminated in a daisycutter that Londak succeeded in holding onto. Soon after, the visiting stopper was again alert to grab a firm hold of a Richard Dunne header from an Andrews delivery.
Briefly, there was excitement as chances were swapped at either ends, with McGeady working himself into a good position before choosing the wrong option with his cross.
Estonia midfielder Martin Vunk followed up by testing Given with a long-range thunderbolt.
However, when Trapattoni withdrew Keane midway through the second half, it was a favour to LA Galaxy boss Bruce Arena and a clear sign that the remainder of the game was about seeing out the clock.
The countdown to next June begins here.
Ireland -- Given 6, O'Shea 6, St Ledger 7, Dunne 7, Ward 7 Hunt 6 [McGeady 59, 6], Whelan 7, Andrews 6, Duff 7 [Fahey 79, 6]; Keane 6 [Cox 66, 6], Doyle 7
Estonia -- Londak, Jaager, Rahn, Klavan, Kruglov [Puri 18]; Teniste, Vassiljev, Vunk, Lindpere (Kink 54); Saag, Voskoboinikov (Purje 73).
Ref -- B Kuipers (Holland).
The game at a glance
On a rare night when he and Keith Andrews faced a two-man midfield, Whelan enjoyed himself and played his part as Ireland finished ahead in the possession stakes for a change. His passing was clever, tackling full of bite and positional sense excellent.
After Friday night's rout in Tallinn, this was always going to be a strange evening, but against admittedly limited opposition Ireland showed that there is more to their game than the direct approach.
Dutch official Bjorn Kuipers enjoyed a quiet evening in Dublin after his counterpart Viktor Kassai was the centre of attention on Friday.
The biggest football crowd at the redeveloped Lansdowne Road were here for a party and they weren't about to let the uncompetitive match get in their way. Paper planes rained down from the upper decks, a pitch invader showed some cheek and most stayed for the lap of honour.
And finally ...
Spare a thought for those watching on from Belgrade and Ljubljana. How did experienced international outfits like Serbia and Slovenia lose out to Estonia in the group stages?
Yellow cards: Ireland 0, Estonia 2 (Rahn 10, Vunk 66)
Red cards: Ireland 0, Estonia 0
Shots on target: Ireland 7, Estonia 3
Shots off target: Ireland 4, Estonia 4
Corners: Ireland 4, Estonia 3
Possession: Ireland 51pc, Estonia 49pc