It wasn’t just Irish eyes that were smiling when the Euro 2012 playoff draw was made in Polish city of Krakow – some of the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) delegation appeared to be laughing out loud when they were drawn to face Estonia, with the winner heading to next year’s finals.
But despite the protestations of coach Tarmo Ruutli, Ireland probably represents the best possible draw for the Estonians, given that the other alternatives were Portugal, Croatia or the Czech Republic.
“I don’t think the Republic of Ireland were the easiest of our potential opponents,” Ruutli said in a statement after the draw.
“All the teams at this stage are strong and they proved it during the group stage. However, I won’t deny the fact that we wanted to face Ireland more than the others.”
Former Ireland captain Kenny Cunningham didn’t mince his words, telling RTE TV that “everyone would have been leaning towards Estonia. They are the weakest of the teams we could have faced.”
But although they get the results, Ireland’s problem may be that they don’t tend to do well against “weak” teams, despite a plethora of players playing in the English Premiership
They struggled to beat lowly Andorra in their two qualifiers, and suffered the ignominy of conceding a goal to them at home.
Despite being able to field a strike force of Premiership stalwarts like Kevin Doyle and Robbie Keane, Ireland still only managed 15 goals in qualifying – the same number as Estonia.
But even if they haven’t produced fireworks up front, Giovanni Trappatoni’s side are extremely hard to beat, especially on their travels. They were undefeated away from home in the qualifying campaign, picking up 11 points from a possible 15.
In contrast, the Estonians were a little more erratic, winning three and losing two of their five away games.
In a nightmare week in June they lost to both Italy and the Faroe Islands, but then bounced back to rattle off three straight victories and clinch second sport behind Italians.
Despite their remarkable fightback, Kenny Cunningham was clear about how the Irish team should be thinking.
“We should approach the game with real confidence. The players know we have a great chance of going through, but not to get carried away.”
If recent results are anything to go by, the same could be said for the Estonians, so here’s hoping Ireland don’t suffer from the same stage-fright that has afflicted them in many of the key ties in this campaign.