Full house party is just an ace away

 

SOCCER:THE AVIVA’S first full house for a football match will witness a little bit of history this evening. Most likely the crowd of 51,000 will be at the heart of the party as the Republic of Ireland qualifies for a major championship at Lansdowne Road, something it has never done before. The only other possibility is that they witness the side’s worst ever competitive home defeat. Either way, it will be one to tell the kids about.

For the record, the Estonians arrive needing to win by five in order to progress and four if they are to force matters into extra time. And perhaps they’ll take some small hope from the fact that Spain and the Netherlands have previously achieved victories of precisely those magnitudes in friendly games in Dublin down the years.

The current world champions, to be precise, won 5-0 here in 1931, while the side now ranked one place below in second on the world ladder, managed four without reply in 2006.

Just about anything is possible, of course, especially in football but given the historical record it is no great surprise that the players have been hinting at their desire to be about for the party this evening, almost as much as they have been talking up their collective need to be professional.

More than any of his players, though, Giovanni Trapattoni went out of his way to highlight the importance of showing respect tonight. The Estonians, he said, deserve it, and so too do the supporters who are making “such sacrifices” to pay for their tickets.

Still, the Italian barely seemed able to resist turning the naming of his team yesterday into a tribute to the core group of players he credits with having taken Ireland to the brink of a first major championship appearance in a decade.

With the usual hint of showman about his presentation, the veteran manager observed that, “we have not achieved our goal yet,” because “qualifying is not finished,” and predicted that the “wrong mentality,” would be unlikely to yield the right result.

He invited questions without naming his side, which ensured that the first would be a request for him to do so and he began to list them off a little like a cabaret compere. Sadly it all went a little awry when he got to the last one and announced that “also returning is the great Damien Doyle. “Eh,” he quickly corrected himself, “Kevin Doyle”.

For a while he got back on the straight and narrow before losing himself slightly in a lengthy stream of observations that included a further reflection on the improved tendency of his players to respect curfews and answer texts. It was odd stuff on the eve of what should prove to be a great day for the Italian but beside him Robbie Keane appeared to be enjoying it and, on the other side of the top table, only the newcomers seemed surprised.

Apart from Doyle, John O’Shea returns and Stephen Hunt starts in place of Aiden McGeady who, the manager says, will come on for the second half.

“I’d like to give the others the satisfaction of playing too because they deserve it,” he said in relation to the likes of Keith Fahey, Jonathan Walters, Simon Cox and Darren O’Dea, all of whom were mentioned by name at some stage.

Whether that means his substitutes will include all of those players was left unclear but it didn’t seem to auger well for James McCarthy or Seamus Coleman who, as he had suggested on Saturday night, might get the chance to impress at some stage over the course of the second half this evening.

With McGeady apparently sure to come on and Cox at the front of the queue to replace Keane, who he is expected only to play an hour or so, there is not much scope left for auditioning fringe players and Trapattoni, one increasingly suspects, feels no great sense of urgency about doing so anyway.

He might, one hopes, see more reason than usual to try to put on a bit of a show this evening rather than concentrating exclusively, as he always says he is happy to, on the result. But the 72 year-old will probably be happiest if his side can maintain their recent momentum, keep another clean sheet and, ideally, get another couple of goals.

Whether the Estonians can spoil the party, even to the extent of getting a result of some sort, remains to be seen. But on the basis of what little we could take from a first leg in which they ended up with just nine men on the pitch, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that a big win is beyond them, unless the home side completely implodes and so to that extent, to paraphrase the old break-up line: It’s not about them, it’s about us.

Disaster avoidance is about as high as the bar is set for the Irish now and once they do that and steer clear of any red cards – which would prompt suspensions in Poland or Ukraine next summer – then the celebrations are likely to start some way short of the final whistle.

WHAT'S AT STAKE: Euro 2012 prizemoney

€8m - The fixed participation contribution for every team that qualifies

€1m - For each win at finals

€500,000 – The reward for each draw achieved at finals

€1m - Goes to the third placed team in each group

€2m - For the losing quarter-finalists

€3m - For the losing semi-finalist

€4.5m - For the runners-up

€7.5m - To the winners