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Wednesday, November 16, 2011


How wonderfully clear and blue the sky looks on this fine November day. How gently the breeze blows. How tuneful is the singing of our wingèd friends. How warmly the sun shines. How sweet is the scent which wafts in the air. All of this can only mean one thing; Ireland have qualified for the European Championship finals, and a monkey the size of King Kong has finally been wedged off the collective back of Irish football - the 5:1 aggregate victory against Estonia is the first time that an Irish team has beaten European opposition in a play-off.

It's only taken 45 years and many attempts. Reel off the list of European opponents to whom Ireland have lost in play-off action: Spain, Holland, Belgium, Turkey, France. And then there was defeat to Norway in qualification for the 1938 World Cup in what was officially a two-team group, but which could - and should really - be regarded as a play-off. Someone, somewhere will no doubt mention that the Boys in Green defeated Iran over two legs to qualify for the 2002 World Cup, and that would be correct, but the Iranian FA is a member association of the AFC.

Ireland have never had much luck in play-offs; every single one of them (apart from the game against Holland) was a closely-fought nailbiter. Irish fans will still go on about the game against France in Saint-Dénis two years ago and the injustice that was done. However, Roy Keane was right on the money (for a change) when he said in the aftermath of the second-leg that Ireland had more than enough chances in the first-half at the Stade de France to wrap up qualification for the 2010 World Cup, but didn't take them.

The build-up to the play-off against Estonia has already been covered in a different blog, so no need to rake over old ground as to how Ireland reached it. (The blog/article in question was: Ho-hum; It's the Play-offs Again for the Boys in Green. Should you need to read it, kindly look in the Archive.) Hope and expectation were, as always, evident in equal measure; Ireland were expected to easily dispose of Estonia over the two legs, not least by the media and pundits of variable quality. For once, Ireland were favourites to qualify.

If Ireland never had much good fortune fall their way in all of the previous play-offs against European opposition, they received enough good fortune during the first-leg  of this one, played last Friday in Tallinn, to compensate for all of those in the past in which they were defeated. Ireland eventually ran out 4:0 winners, a Keith Andrews header in the 13th minute settling those early nerves, which were apparent as Estonia came out of the blocks with gusto. It was end-to-end stuff for a while, until, in the 35th minute, Robbie Keane was upended on his way through a yawning gap in the Estonian defence by the last defender, Andrei Stepanov, who saw the red card brandished in front of him for his troubles. Estonia 0:1 Ireland at half-time; a good start, and it would only get better.

Buoyed by the dual advantages of having scored an away goal and having the extra man, Ireland slowly tightened their grip on the game. Apart from Richard Dunne almost scoring a bizarre own-goal, all was nice and quiet at the back, with the Estonians only threatening with shots from distance; Spartak Moscow's Aidan McGeady was having the game of his life out on the left wing, Keane was running his socks off and Stoke City's Jon Walters was proving to be a handful for the Estonian defence. It was he who scored the second goal, heading the ball home after a dinked cross which looped upon several players on and just in front of the goal-line. Walters got there first and headed the ball over the line, just in front of a despairing attempted clearance by one of the home side's defenders, a just reward for all his endeavour.

Robbie Keane notched his 52nd and 53rd goals for Ireland to round off the scoring, the first of which came after a free-kick was parried by Sergei Pareiko in the Estonian goal into the path of the onrushing Keane who could hardly miss. His second, and Ireland's fourth came via a penalty, awarded after Stephen Hunt was upended in the penalty-area after a challenge from Ats Purje, which you could see coming from around five seconds beforehand; the ball broke free and Hunt hared after it as it entered the area. Purje came across but it was obvious he was going to be second to the ball, and, after what seemed an eternity, the inevitable happened. Keane stroked the ball into the bottom right-hand corner, just out of reach of the 'keeper.

In between times, a second Estonian, Rajo Piiroja, was given his second yellow card of the night after handling the ball in a chase between himself and Keane. Keane immediately responded with his trademark pose, a repeat of the immedate aftermath of the challenge which saw the first Estonian receive his marching-orders; knees bent, back hollowed and arms outstretched at the "ten past two" position. This is perhaps the only criticism one can level at Keane - he appeals every nudge, every handball with wild gesticulations, and the ploy worked every time last Friday evening. With regard to the second sending-off, Keane actually nudged Piiroja first, causing him to lose his balance somewhat. As they would say in Tallinn, Eesti 0:4 Iirimaa; a job well done, and Walters was surely the man of the match (that'll please Potters fans everywhere), followed closely by Andrews and McGeady 

If Ireland had received seven play-offs' worth of good fortune in Tallinn, then lady luck had certainly deserted Estonia last Friday evening. Two men sent off, a dose of inconsistent refereeing, slapdash defending, nervy goalkeeping; you get the picture..

If the game in Dublin yesterday evening was Ireland's triumphant homecoming, it was also Estonia's attempt at some sort of redemption. Party-time as it was in the stands, with paper-planes, made from green cards distributed by the FAI's (FAI=Football Association of Ireland) main sponsor before the game, fluttering their way towards the pitch at regular intervals, there was no carnival football to be seen on the pitch.

The game meandered gently from beginning to end, with Keane looking dangerous early on, and Keith Doyle, Richard Dunne and Keane missing opportunities to finish off the job in style. The laid-back nature of the game was punctuated only by two goals caused by yet more goalkeeping errors; Stephen Ward's tap-in after Estonian goalkeeper Pavel Londak had fumbled the ball, headed on by Kevin Doyle, from a Damien Duff corner put Ireland in front.

Estonia's equaliser early in the second-half came after a strike from distance from Konstantil Vassilijev saw a delayed reaction from Shay Given, which caused the ball to ricochet off his underarm and into the net behind him. It gave the travelling Estonian support (and those based in Ireland) something to cheer about, and the goal itself was at least something to show for an improved display from their team, who troubled Given from distance on more than one occasion last night.

So, Ireland have qualified for the European Championship after a gap of 24 years, under the tutelage of Giovanni Trappatoni, the 72-year-old Italian, who got the Ireland team playing to their strengths; the phrase "the sum being greater than the parts" would apply to the team at the moment. And why not play to your strengths? There are many among the Irish general public who have decried, and continue to decry, Ireland's cagey tactics, but if you don't have something - "flair" players, for example - you can't use it.

"Trapp" and his assistent, Marco Tardelli, have worked wonders with the Boys in Green over the past few years; Ireland don't score many goals, but they don't concede too many, either, and have lost only 1 out of 12 competitive matches played since the start of the qualifiers for Euro 2012. The football might not have held the average fan spellbound, but no-one can say that it doesn't work.

Who stands out in the present Ireland team, and what of the future? Shay Given can count himself among the best goalkeepers in Europe; Richard Dunne (his propensity for scoring own-goals notwithstanding) is a formidable, not to say brave - his and Given's performances against Russia in Moscow were something worthy of a serious bout of statue-building - central defender and came to Ireland's rescue on more than one occasion during the qualifiers; Robbie Keane has now scored 53 goals for Ireland, an incredible goalscoring record in anybody's book; and Damien Duff, although starting to show signs of slowing up, is still more than capable of tormenting the best of defenders. Sadly, though, it already looks like the end of the road for the over-criticised and ever-dependable Kevin Kilbane, who has won 110 caps for his country but wasn't selected by Trappatoni as part of the Irish squad selection for the play-offs.

The Ireland team's prospects for the future don't look too bad, though they were handed no favours when the draw was made at the end of July for the 2014 World Cup qualifiers. They were drawn in European Group C alongside Germany, Sweden, Austria, Faroe Islands and Kazakhstan.

A tough draw, but it will doubtless give more or less established players such as Keith Andrews, Aidan McGeady, John O'Shea, and Keith Doyle a chance to shine somewhere along the line, alongside comparative newcomers Jon Walters, Everton's Séamus Coleman - definitely one to watch for the future, Simon Cox and Stephen Ward.

But Euro 2012 is first up on the agenda, and Ireland will find out just who they will be up against on 2/12/11 when the draw is made. The seedings for the draw were made public by UEFA today, and here's how everything adds up: 

POT 1: Poland, Ukraine, Spain, Holland
POT 2: Germany, Italy, England, Russia
POT 3: Croatia, Greece, Portugal, Sweden
POT 4: Denmark, France, Czech Republic, IRELAND

It may well be that Ireland will not get past the first round, and should they be paired with the likes of Spain or Holland to begin with, and then alongside Germany or Russia, for example, the chances of progress will become slimmer still. The final stages of Euro 2012 are still seven months away, and who knows what little plans Trappatoni and his faithful assistant, Marco Tardelli, have up their sleeves? Whether Ireland get past the first round or not, their opponents will know that they have been in a game, and whether or not their opponents - and some of the Irish fans themselves - might not find the tactics of the Irish team to their liking, they seem to work, and any amount of criticism levelled will not affect Trappatoni and Co one little bit.

Ten years the Irish support has waited for the Boys in Green to qualify for the finals of a major tournament. Last night was a sweet moment for all concerned with Irish football. One day on, as Irish fans continue to fall out of cupboards, as day turns to night and the stars come out, the air has cooled but a delightful scent still lingers. Ah yes, 'tis the sweet smell of success that wafts in the air. How welcome it is.

1 comment:

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