Euro 2012 - Ireland thrash Estonia in Tallinn
Fri, 11 Nov 23:07:00 2011
Republic of Ireland have all but qualified for Euro 2012 after thrashing Estonia 4-0 in the first leg of their qualification play-off at the A. Le Coq Arena in Tallinn.
Keith Andrews and Jonathan Walters both scored before captain Robbie Keane struck twice to extend his record haul of goals to 54 for his country and virtually book the visiting side's place at a major finals for the first time since they reached the World Cup finals in 2002.
Estonia had two men sent off by Hungarian referee Viktor Kassai as Ireland banished the ghosts of their crushing World Cup play-off defeat to France two years ago and Thierry Henry's handball incident that cheated Ireland out of a place at the 2010 World Cup finals in South Africa.
The Estonians will travel to Dublin for what seems like a formality of a second leg at the Aviva Stadium knowing they must score at least four goals to have any chance of reaching their first ever tournament. Under the ultra-conservative Giovanni Trapattoni, Ireland have only conceded once in their last 950 minutes of action.
It is already party time in Tallinn with the several thousand Ireland fans who travelled to watch this match convinced that the job of qualifying is in the bag before the second leg.
Estonia will have to try to do the impossible without their two first-choice centre-backs and goalkeeper. Defenders Andrei Stepanov and Raio Piiroja were both sent off for two yellow cards, immediately incurring suspensions for the second leg, while keeper Sergei Pareiko will also miss that match for a needless booking he picked up.
After an early warning on 10 minutes when Konstantin Vassiljev - Estonia's top scorer in their group with five goals - had his shot deflected on to the roof of the net by Andrews, the Blackburn Rovers midfielder made his mark at the other end three minutes later.
Winger Aiden McGeady was given too much time to take aim and bend his cross around full-back Enar Jaager and Andrews rose to head in his third international goal.
Vassiljev fired a decent effort from range that flew past Shay Given's far post, but once Stepanov was sent off on 35 minutes there seemed only one winner.
The defender was booked on the 15th minute for a cynical trip on McGeady, and he got his marching orders when he clumsily felled Keane as the last defender.
Ireland remained the team on top, but it was not until the 67th minute that they finally broke a 10-man Estonia's resolve. Pareiko parried McGeady's shot out to Keane, who lifted the ball to Walters at the far post and the Stoke forward's header clearly crossed the line before the keeper could claw it away. The goal was Walters's first in international football, and it vindicated his selection ahead of Simon Cox.
Soon enough it was 3-0 when - after Estonia captain Piiroja was booked for barging over Andrews - the free-kick was saved by the keeper's leg and Keane pounced to tap into the unguarded net.
Piiroja was sent off soon afterwards when he was judged to have handled as he tussled with Keane. The decision was a questionable one as Keane had given Piiroja a shove in the back, but it was symptomatic of Estonia's shambolic collapse that puts the achievement of their very presence in the play-offs into context.
How Estonia managed to reach the play-offs is something of a minor miracle given the limited nature of their squad.
Keane rounded off the night with two minutes of normal time remaining from the penalty spot. Stephen Hunt was barged over inside the area by fellow substitute Ats Purje and - after Pareiko received a booking for dissent that rules him out of the second leg - Keane calmly stroked home from the spot for his 54th international goal before celebrating wildly the moment that sets up Tuesday night to be a celebration of qualification before a sell-out Dublin crowd.
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