ANGST: The end of the line came a bit too soon after well played season.
TALLINN - Estonia have been stopped dead in their tracks in their attempt to qualify for the finals of a major football tournament for the first time in the country’s history, with Ireland having little trouble at bundling the Blueshirts out of the UEFA Euro 2012 playoffs. On account of finishing second in Group C during qualifying, Estonia earned themselves an historic berth in the playoff round of qualifying, alongside seven other teams. By just making it to the playoff stage, Estonia was already entering unchartered territory, with the country never previously finishing above fourth in the group stage in any qualifying campaign for a major sports tournament.
However, it is at the playoff stage that Estonia’s unlikely run has finally been brought to an end with Ireland easily prevailing, 5-1, over two legs played in Tallinn on Friday night and back in Dublin, Ireland, on Tuesday evening.
In front of sellout home crowd of just under 10,000 in A Le Coq Arena on Friday, Estonia were dealt two heavy blows within the opening 40 minutes when Andrei Stepanov was shown his second yellow card in the 35th minute, reducing Tarmo Ruutli’s team to ten men. With this coming after the home team had already gone behind 0-1 on account of a Keith Andrews header into the right corner of the net in the 13th minute, Estonia was left with a monumental task ahead of them if they were to come back.
Having taken a nothing-to-lose attitude into the game, Estonia continued to attack hard despite their setbacks with their leading scorer in the campaign to date, Konstantin Vassiljev asking questions of the Irish defenders on more than one occasion.
Yet despite the Amkar Perm midfielder’s best efforts, Estonia went into the break with nothing to show for their efforts.
The attacking prowess of the Estonians remained in the opening stages of the second half, but when Stoke City forward Jon Walters headed home in the 67th minute it was a long way back for Tarmo Ruutli’s men. Aiden McGeady initially shot from just inside the box, but his shot would be deflected away by goalie Sergei Pareiko, only for the deflection to be pounced on by Irish captain Robbie Keane who in turn lobbed it high to Walters, who was standing on the right post to head the ball over the line.
Four minutes later and Pareiko was once more being made to pay for an inability to control the ball. An Andrews’ free kick from outside the box rocketed into the legs of the goalie and the LA Galaxy striker, Keane, was once more on hand to tidy up, firing the deflection into the back of the net, to bring up his sixth goal of the campaign.
Following the goal the frustrations in the Estonians was visible, and an inability to control their emotions would prove costly more than once. In the 70th minute Captain Raio Piiroja was being shown his first yellow card of the night, and when his second would follow six minutes later his team was left to fight it out for the remaining 14 minutes with nine men.
Ireland piled on the pressure on attack and would finally reap the rewards when replacement Ats Purje imploded inside the box, taking down Stephen Hunt inside the box two minutes out from the final whistle. Keane then stepped up to easily hit from the penalty spot for his second of the night to wrap up the 4-0 win.
On the return leg Estonia would put up a significantly stronger fight, but that was perhaps partly on account of complacency from their opponents, who already knew that their place in next year’s finals in Poland and Ukraine was all but secured, even more so when Stephen Ward scored Ireland’s fifth goal of the tie in the 35th minute. Having replaced the hapless Pareiko in goal, it was a bad start for Pavel Londak when he failed to hold onto the ball, allowing Ward to fire home from close range.
With the Irish fans in full party mode, knowing they were returning to the European Championship for the first time since 1988, Vassiljev, who was captain for the night in the absence Piiroja on account of his sending off on the first leg, would complete a memorable campaign, hitting home a long shot in the 57th minute to record his sixth and final goal of the qualifying phase.
Despite losing the tie, the draw on the second leg can still offer some reprieve for the world’s 59th ranked team, who will now be hoping to see their world ranking climb on account result. The world football governing body FIFA next update the world rankings on Nov. 23.
There have also been more than enough positives throughout the campaign to give coach Ruutli confidence that his team can build on their results here as they now look ahead to qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Earlier this year Estonian Football Federation spokesman Mihkel Uiboleht told TBT that given the age of most members of the current squad, the team expects to be reaching their prime as a group during qualifying for the World Cup, suggesting that expectations will be high amongst the men in blue following their achievements this year.