WITH the match less than four hours away, all three of RTE2's pundits were hopeful of an unlikely outcome.
The Irish never give up, Liam Brady observed.
John Giles noted that football was always "full of surprises" and that this might well be the night when "spirit" and "luck" would prevail.
Eamon Dunphy insisted that being pitted against the current world champions was "not a lost cause" and that, although this was "a big, big test for Ireland, there's hope there and it's a realistic hope".
Surely this wasn't the same Eamon Dunphy who more than two decades ago achieved instant fame and subsequent fortune by rubbishing Jack Charlton and his valiant Italia '90 side?
Back then, he denounced a bad Irish performance as a "disgrace", whereas in the aftermath of last Sunday night's dismal display against Croatia, the players had given their all against a side that unfortunately was superior to them.
Why this mellowing, not just on Eamon's part, but on that of Liam and John, too?
When you compare Bill O'Herlihy and his RTE2 panel with those fielded by the BBC and ITV, what's immediately striking is how elderly they are -- Bill and John in their 70S, Eamon in his late 60s and Liam a not so youthful 55.
Better, of course, the gravitas of age than the infantile witterings of a Robbie Savage or the coma-inducing inanities of an Alan Shearer on BBC1, while only a masochist would suffer Gareth Southgate, Jamie Carragher et al over on ITV.
Indeed, the RTE pundits have always been in an entirely different league from their British counterparts, a fact plainly recognised by their Montrose bosses, who, while occasionally enlisting the services of such quirky outsiders as Graeme Souness and Didi Hamann, always revert to the core trio for the really big occasions.
But its downsides are becoming more noticeable -- not least of which is that on most aspects of the game the three men are nearly always in agreement, and contentedly insiderish agreement at that.
And so yesterday afternoon they all derided reporter Tony O'Donoghue's "very strong rumour" from an "inside source" that Giovanni Trappatoni would bring Simon Cox into the midfield and play Robbie Keane up front.
An hour later it turned out to be indeed true, which would have caused the old firebrand Eamon to rant and rave at the insanity of it all, but the latterday mellow Eamon merely deemed it a "big surprise", a surprisingly muted reaction that was echoed by John and Liam.
What was needed here -- indeed, throughout much of the punditry -- was a fourth panellist, someone with the impertinence of the chippy outsider, someone who was not afraid to puncture the bubble of cosy familiarity that too frequently gives this panel the smug aura of a mutual appreciation society.
That someone would have been the combative Eamon Dunphy of former times.
Now that he's long achieved fame and belongs to the establishment he once railed against, he's showing his more tolerant and understanding side.
That probably makes him a nicer and more rounded person, but it's not what we want from our football pundits, especially when the evidence of our long-suffering eyes isn't echoed by those who are paid an awful lot of money to tell it like it is.
The three lads are still a zillion times better -- more articulate, more interesting than their counterparts across the water.
But a fresh, provocative presence in the studio would be welcome.