On Friday a small nation will attempt to finish off what could be one the great football stories in modern times, by beating Ireland in the playoffs for EURO 2012. Should they qualify, Estonia, a former Soviet nation on the shores of the Baltic sea with a population of 1.3m, will be the smallest nation ever to make the European Championship finals.
By coincidence, I’m going to be in Tallinn (Estonia’s capital) on Friday, where the first leg will be played, and I may get to see history in the making, as I think Estonia have an excellent chance of winning.
Estonia have come a long way from their first EURO qualifying campaign after their independence, where they lost every game. Estonia’s most famous football moment, at least here in the UK, was when they failed to turn up to a World Cup Qualifier at home against Scotland in 1996. Scotland had complained to FIFA about the quality of the floodlights, and the kick-off time was moved to 3pm. Estonia, in protest, stuck to the later kick-off time and Scotland kicked off the game without an opponent, and the match was abandoned after three seconds. The game was later replayed in Monaco, finishing 0-0.
After picking up their first competitive win against Belarus in 1998, Estonia have steadily improved over the past ten years or so, no longer being regarded as whipping boys, but haven’t really come close to qualifying for a major tournament before.
Estonia’s qualifying campaign got off to an inauspicious start, where two injury-time goals were required to scrape a 2-1 win against the Faroe Islands at home. They were leading Italy at half-time in Tallinn; only to concede two second half goals. In October 2010, Estonia pulled off one of the shocks of the EURO 2012 qualifiers by beating Serbia in Belgrade. Estonia were behind but scored three goals late on for a famous win.
Estonia then undid some of their good work by losing at home to Slovenia. After a draw at home to Serbia and defeat in Italy, Estonia’s campaign looked to be over after they lost 2-0 in the Faroe Islands in June. While it’s true that the Faroe Islands have improved and are not the pushovers they once were (the Faroes totally outplayed Italy in a recent qualifier, and lost a game they deserved to win), for any team with serious aspirations of qualifying for a major tournament, that’s a game that they should be winning.
That left Estonia with a mountain to climb to have any chance of qualifying. They had to win their last three games and hope other results went their way. They beat Slovenia in Ljubljana, then picked up a big win at home to Northern Ireland then beat Northern Ireland again in Belfast, which meant that they sat second in the group, though if Serbia picked up a point against Slovenia they would qualify at the Estonians expense. Slovenia duly won and Estonia have made it.
What makes this all the more remarkable is that Estonia don’t really have any star players. They rely on a strong team ethic. Estonia’s top-scorer in qualifying, midfielder Konstantin Vassiljev, who has played mostly in Slovenia for the past few seasons, but has recently moved to Ankar Perm of the Russian Premier League and Tarmo Kink of Middlesbrough in the Championship here in England, are the only players playing at a particularly high level, but the rest of the squad have benefitted from playing in leagues all over Europe, as it is a higher standard than the Estonian Premier league, which most of the team used to be selected from.
Estonia do have some good attacking players in the team, with Vassiljev, Kink, Ats Purje, Sergei Zenjov all providing some attacking threat, but they don’t have a main striker that can be relied on for goals. Andres Oper, who is Estonia’s all-time top scorer with 36 goals used to provide that, but he is without a club presently, so has barely featured for Estonia in recent times.
It’s certainly not out of the question that Estonia can win. When the playoff draw was made, Ireland would’ve been regarded as the weakest of the top seeds, they’d rather play Ireland than Croatia, Portugal or the Czech Republic, though Ireland would’ve been equally pleased to have drawn Estonia, regarded as the weakest of the bottom seeds, certainly an easier proposition than Bosnia, Montenegro or Turkey. Ireland are not a particularly strong team, despite a decent FIFA ranking of 25. That FIFA ranking is two below Serbia and two above Slovenia, so Estonia can take heart from the fact that they managed two away wins against teams of a similar standard to Ireland.
From an Estonian point of view, this is probably the best time to play Ireland. They are a good team, but beatable. Ireland have a few problems up front, with Shane Long and Leon Best injury doubts, Kevin Doyle suspended for the first leg and Robbie Keane will have to make a long journey to play. There are other injuries too. Midfielders Liam Lawrence and Darron Gibson are out, as are defenders John O’Shea and Darren O’Dea, and there are many of Ireland’s first-team players struggling to be fit in time to play the first-leg.
It’s not going to be easy however. Ireland do have a good record, they are unbeaten in their last nine, conceding one goal in that time, and have only lost once in their last 20 qualifying matches. Ireland do tend to play quite a cautious, defensively-minded game, which makes them difficult to beat. Ireland’s manager Giovanni Trapattoni, has yet to lose a competitive away game, in fact, Ireland have a better away record than home record under Trapattoni.
There are some flaws in Ireland’s approach to the game, which Estonia may be able to exploit. Trapattoni almost religiously employs a 4-4-2 formation, which a team that plays three central midfielders can easily overcome. As Ireland play such a disciplined defensive game, they find it difficult to switch to a more attacking mindset when it is required, meaning that they never look too comfortable in attack. So if Estonia can take a first-leg lead to Dublin, Ireland may struggle to overcome it. Also, Trapattoni tends to overlook some of the young talent available to him, such as Everton’s Seamus Coleman or Wigan’s James McCarthy, preferring tried and tested players instead. This means that on occasion Ireland do look stale and lacking players that can change the game from the bench.
For Estonia to have got this far is a huge achievement, especially given where they were with three games to go, and whatever happens they can be proud. However, there is a good chance that the story won’t end there and a small, Baltic country from will be in Poland and the Ukraine next summer at one of the world’s major football tournaments.
EDIT I said that if Serbia had've drawn with Slovenia they'd have got through at Estonia's expense. That's wrong. What I should've said (and did before my deleting got the better of me!) was a draw would've sent Estonia throuh by virtue of having the better of the head-to-head record against Serbia. Lesson to self, proof read. Thanks to yellow bismarck for pointing that out.