Ireland to the fore as Estonia are put to the sword
Estonia 0 – 4 Republic of Ireland
Keith Andrews 13
Jon Walters 67
Robbie Keane 71, 87 (pen)
A night of celebration in Tallinn as Ireland scored a win to savour in the first leg of the UEFA Championship play-off.
A win by four goals exceeded all expectations as Ireland took what surely will prove to be a decisive step towards the UEFA 2012 Championship finals in Poland/Ukraine next Summer.
It is inconceivable to think they will let it slip now. Their superiority on the night was complete by the end of the match and the encouraging thing for the players and the management team was their success in taking the goals to emphasise that.
The occasion proved too big for Estonia who were competing for the first time at this advanced stage of a major championship. The lost a goal after 13 minutes, when the marvellous Keith Andrews angled a brilliant header wide of goalkeeper Sergei Pareiko, and the pressure that was generated by this reverse caused them to self-destruct.
Estonia showed they were capable of neat and constructive football and they moved better than Ireland for periods of the first half. But they lacked the strength and aggression to penetrate Ireland's formidable defence and once they fell behind there was an element of desperation in their drive to deny Ireland a second.
This caused centre-back Andrei Stepanov to attract yellow card bookings for two rash tackles within 34 minutes of kick-off and the resultant dismissal meant Estonia's position was hopeless. He took Aiden McGeady out with a blatant trip in the 17th minute and committed a dangerous challenge on Robbie Keane in the 34th minute.
Estonia finished the match with just nine players on the pitch after their other centre-back, Piiroja, was shown a yellow card – his second - for a deliberate hand-ball in the 77th minute. His action effectively denied Keane an opportunity to surge clear of the defence to confront the goalkeeper.
Ireland were leading 3-0 at the time and the dismissal had little influence on the result. But Piiroja's action was symptomatic of the aching search for a result that informed Estonia's second half performance as they sought to over-take Ireland.
The contrast in the approach of the two teams was interesting. Estonia were anxious and insecure while Ireland were pragmatic as ever; calm and assured under pressure, which is their hallmark. They were cold and calculating in their decisive surge for the goals they needed in the second half.
The game and the performance followed a pattern that we recognise now as classic as defined by manager Giovanni Trapattoni. First there was the hard-nosed emphasis upon a very basic approach with the head of the willing Jon Walters the target for each and every defensive Irish clearance.
Walters' strength and his unstinting desire to turn every opportunity to advantage set up a magnificent first goal in the 13th minute. He was heavily involved, feeding Robbie Keane on the left-hand edge of the penalty area. A clever pass from Keane to Aiden McGeady resulted in a chip to the penalty spot where the surging Keith Andrews headed down and wide of goalkeeper Sergei Pareiko.
Kruglov caused Ireland problems on the left wing where Stephen Kelly was thankful for the support of Damien Duff in trying to curb the lively winger. But Ireland's storied defensive screen ensured that Estonia's scoring efforts were hurried and struck from distance. Shay Given was masterful in his control of anything in the penalty box.
Ireland used the half-time interval effectively as they plotted a change of approach. They were much more ambitious in the second half, used the ball more constructively, brought wingers Duff and McGeady increasingly into the action and stepped up the pressure exponentially on an Estonia team growing ever more desperate.
First they had to absorb a period of Estonia pressure as the home side freshened up their team by introducing a couple of substitutes. Then a second goal effectively settled the issue. It came after 67 minutes and, fittingly, was claimed by the busy Walters.
McGeady played an important role, turning inside an opponent to drive a right-foot shot at goal from 12 yards. Pareiko got his hands to the ball but could not hold it and Keane showed great awareness as he checked his situation before he lobbed the ball from left to right across the goal to where Walters headed it in from outside the far upright.
The team captain, Robbie Keane, said: "Full credit to the players for a great performance from the start to the end. They had a couple of players sent off but the job was done before that.
"The two decisions were obviously correct and we got the early goal we wanted with a great header. The four goals mean that it should be over now and while you cannot take anything for granted in football it should be over."
Keane brought his international total of goals to 52 after 71 minutes. Keith Andrews hammered a free from 30 yards at goal and struck the ball with swerve so goalkeeper Pareiko was deceived. He dived one way and as the ball flew away from him he stuck out a foot to deflect it from goal. Keane was there, as a good centre-forward should be, to roll the rebound home.
The great strength of the squad that has been developed by Trapattoni and Marco Tardelli is the genuine ambition of each and every individual to work to a standstill. The attitude and pride of Ireland's substitutes in wearing the shirt reflected all that is good in this tightly-knit group and Stephen Hunt epitomised that from the moment of his introduction in the 71st minute.
He drove into the penalty area in the 87th minute and stepped past yet another desperate Estonia tackle. Inevitably he was brought to ground and this afforded Keane the opportunity to score his 53rd goal for Ireland in his 112nd appearance. The goal surely slammed the door on Estonia's hopes.
Keane praised the attitude and performance of the squad and responded to questions by elaborating upon the contribution of a couple of individuals: "Jon Walters is a handful for defenders, he does it every week for Stoke. He works the defenders and Keith (Andrews) was great from the start to the the finish in midfield and full credit to the whole team for coming here and scoring a 4-0 win. It was a great result.
"I said earlier there was a calmness in the camp and that had nothing to do with our opponents but it was a confidence that is in the squad because of the way we played in the whole competition.
"We deserve to go to the finals because of what we achieved throughout the competition and we look forward to Tuesday night in Dublin now."
Estonia: Pareiko; Jaager, Stepanov, Piiroja, Klavan; Kink, Vunk, Vassiljev, Dmitrijev, Kruglov; Vassiljev, Ahjupera. Substitutes: Voskoboinikov for Ahjupera 55; Lindpere for Vunk 61.
Republic of Ireland: Shay Given (Aston Villa); Stephen Kelly (Fulham), Richard Dunne (Aston Villa), Sean St. Ledger (Leicester City), Stephen Ward (Wolverhampton Wanderers); Damien Duff (Fulham), Glenn Whelan (Stoke City), Keith Andrews (Ipswich Town), Aiden McGeady (Spartak Moscow); Jonathan Walters (Stoke City), Robbie Keane (LA Galaxy). Substitutes: Stephen Hunt (Wolves) for Duff 73; Keith Fahey (Birmingham City) for Whelan 78, Simon Cox (West Bromwich Albion) for Walters 83.
Referee: Mr. Viktor Kassai (Hungary)