Between Estonia and a Hard Place


In the build-up to another qualifier, Mike Palmer assesses the Republic of Ireland’s chances of progressing to Euro 2012

Once again the Republic of Ireland find themselves in that in-between place of football: the play-offs. Only two matches away from what would be Ireland’s first major tournament in ten years, there is a cautious optimism about the team and their chances this time. Firstly they must first defeat Estonia over two legs, and since it is the Irish soccer team, it will surely be a difficult tie.

The qualification campaign has been a mix of determination, pragmatism, dogged defending, good luck and characteristically ugly football. It was certainly never pretty to watch, but the results speak for themselves; a runner-up spot was as good as the team could have ever hoped for, considering their limited capabilities. Though there may have been rumours of a possible upset against Russia in the group, they were effectively diminished after being completely outplayed over a year ago in the Aviva Stadium.

The performances have been left wanting however. Confined by the tactical straitjacket imposed by Trapattoni, there is seemingly little inclination to use possession to attack the opposition. The team sits very deep and content themselves with sporadic attacking bursts, which only occasionally result in clear-cut goal chances. Set pieces or long balls up the pitch tend to be the prime method for attaining a goal. Unfortunately for the neutral spectator, this does not make for compelling football.

Although Trapattoni has been criticised for the brand of football he plays, he has instilled a belief in the Irish camp that they can get results. The Irish team has few technically gifted players, but does contain players capable of grinding out results. Trying to change to free-flowing football by bringing in the likes of James McCarthy and Seamus Coleman would show up Ireland’s technical weaknesses in other areas of the pitch, so Trap sets the team out with tactical astuteness, by playing choke football. The end result isn’t pretty, but it is effective.

Regardless, all signs point to a continuation in this strategy for the matches against Estonia. In Ireland’s last play-off, against France, they went out overly cautious and lacking intent, subsequently losing 1-0 at home in the first leg. To continue with this formula would not serve Ireland well, and Trapattoni’s strategy to sit deep and keep men behind the ball, with only occasional advances on goal, does not suit the big game mentality of a play-off. It may have served the team well in qualifying, but won’t serve the team as well over two legs in a knockout round.

The only competitive exception to the ultra defensive rigidity of Trapattoni’s Ireland was that infamous night in Paris nearly two years ago. The players instilled within themselves a confidence and self-belief that was always lacking throughout the qualifying group matches, and somewhat unexpectedly brought the game to the French.

Ireland were playing under very different conditions in that particular play-off; they were trailing by an away goal, knowing that their only option was to score. Against a team like France, there were no illusions as to our chances of progressing through to the World Cup, and hence not such a huge expectation. The level of expectation will certainly be different this time around.

Drawing Estonia in the play-offs was undoubtedly the most favourable draw Ireland could have hoped for, and they will go into the game as favourites. Ireland are never comfortable with the favourite’s tag however, and underestimating the Estonians would be a dangerous misstep.

The recent performance against Slovakia at home could testify to this. Ireland went in as favourites, knowing a win would further improve chances of automatic qualification, or at least a second place finish. However what followed was a dreadful stalemate in which neither team could score.

As well as that, in their penultimate qualification game against Andorra, Ireland scored two goals in the first half before sitting back to allow the clock to run out. They created few goal-scoring chances in the second half against a team 174 places lower than them in the rankings.

With the Republic of Ireland missing Kevin Doyle through suspension and Robbie Keane likely to miss out because of injury, Trapattoni will have some selection problems ahead of the first leg against Estonia in Tallinn on November 15th. His preferred choice up front to replace Keane looks to be Simon Cox, who all but guaranteed himself a starting berth after his man-of-the-match performance against Armenia.

Wholesale changes for the Estonia game are improbable, but with Doyle out of action, Cox’s probable partner will be Stoke’s Jonathan Walters, rather than Shane Long. Walters looked lively when he came on against Armenia, while Long seems to have fallen out of favour with Trapattoni.

In October 2000, under the management of Mick McCarthy, Ireland won 2-0 in Lansdowne Road against Estonia, before beating them by the same margin the following year in Tallinn. Trapattoni and the Republic of Ireland will be hoping for history to repeat itself.