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Pressure is all on Ireland says Poom

THE BURDEN of expectation was already on the shoulders of the Ireland squad before their flight touched down in Tallinn airport yesterday.

But the local mood here in Estonia is very different. The rival managers have had verbal battles in the media over Ireland's favourites tag, with a debate over whether this game is David v Goliath (according to Estonia's manager, Tarmo Rüütli) or David v David (as Giovanni Trapattoni puts it).

The implications of an Ireland defeat over two legs would be massive, as it would see the end of the four-year Trapattoni era and also spur players such as Shay Given and Robbie Keane towards international football's retirement home.

But in Tallinn, Rüütli is guaranteed a job and his players deemed to be national heroes no matter what happens.

"The play-offs are already a big achievement for us, no-one expected this from us so we can play without pressure. Ireland has the burden to win," former Estonia and Sunderland keeper Mart Poom told the Herald in Tallinn earlier today.

"Our head coach, Tarmo Rüütli, already signed a new contract until the end of the next qualification campaign so whatever the result we will not have any major changes.

"The final tournament is still a dream for us. It has come close, but it's still only a dream.

"Of course as football players we want to win every match but no-one will punish us for not reaching the final tournament," added Poom, now retired from playing but still a key figure in his role as coach with the national team.

He lived the bad times with Estonia, times when the national team failed to achieve anything and made sure that, when the Estonian people looked for national heroes, they found them in other sports and areas of life -- though that has changed now as Estonia has been infected with a fever for football.

"It's a big surprise for everyone that we reached (the) play-offs. At the moment, we can see some small signs of a football boom," Poom explains.

"Tickets for the play-off match against Ireland were sold out in a matter of minutes. A lot of parents and their children are interested to join football trainings.

"I just hope that the state and local governments start investing more in infrastructure to cope with that interest."

It wasn't always this way as for many years, Estonia were simply a poor side: when Poom played in most of the games for the 2002 World Cup qualifiers, they finished fourth in Ireland's group, just ahead of Cyprus on goal difference with only eight points from 10 games. So what's changed?

"The biggest difference between the squad I was playing and today's squad is that now our players are playing abroad," Poom admits.

"Not in top leagues but certainly in better leagues than Estonian Meistriliiga. They get good competitive games, intensive training and that develops their skills and also builds self-confidence.

"Today we have only one or two players from our domestic league in the squad who aren't first-team regulars in the national team.

"It's also important to point out that at the moment we have a very good mix of players, guys with experience, who are leaders, guys who are 25-30, in the 'golden years', and also younger players who have already considerable amounts of international experience."

Poom has played against Ireland before, when Mick McCarthy's team beat the Estonians 2-0 in Dublin.

"I remember the match was played at old Lansdowne Road. We went to Dublin straight from Andorra, where we won," Poom recalls.

"Roy Keane was the captain of Ireland back then and he was one of my favourite players. The game itself was really difficult, but the atmosphere was great."

So how will the two legs turn out?

"We have to play smart in both legs. It's important not to concede in the home leg," adds Poom. "We will see who makes it to the finals but I think we have a great chance."