Two years after Thierry Henry's handball and 10 years after their last qualification to a major tournament, the Republic of Ireland are now only 90 minutes away from Euro 2012. After all the pain of Paris, they are set to make it there in a pleasingly serene manner.
That is not to say last night's 4-0 victory over Estonia in Tallinn was without emotion. On the pitch the players did a lap of honour at the end before jubilantly saluting every side of the ground. Once they had gone, the chief executive of the Football Association of Ireland, John Delaney, conducted the crowd in joyous chants. Finally, in front of Irish television cameras, the normally stoic Ireland coach, Giovanni Trapattoni, was almost in tears.
The conservative in the Italian, however, could not quite bring himself to declare the tie decided. "In this moment, I think we are nearly qualified," he said. "We don't want to jump the gun and have to respect the opponent."
In truth, the tie is all but settled. As is the long, fractious debate about the Italian's philosophy. Over the last three years Trapattoni has often been criticised for unnecessarily constraining his side in the country's biggest tactical argument since Jack Charlton told Liam Brady to just lump it. That argument, however, was always going to be decided by the outcome of this tie. Qualification will justify everything Trapattoni has done. Failure would have vindicated his critics.
To be fair to Trapattoni, this performance showed a few signs of evolution. Right from the start Ireland radiated an air of controlled aggression going forward. Indeed, most pleasingly for the coach, the key opening goal in the 13th minute came from two players who have faced a good deal of criticism themselves. Aiden McGeady, often thought of as wasteful, supplied a clever cross from the left. Keith Andrews, routinely dismissed as one-dimensional, surged into the box to power home a header.
"He can play better again," Trapattoni said of McGeady. "The cross for the goal was fantastic. Also Damien Duff. His job was important for us."
Although often more elegant in possession, Estonia could not handle Ireland's drive. That was encapsulated in the 34th minute when centre-half Andrei Stepanov was forced into a crude foul on Robbie Keane that earned him his second yellow card and reduced the home side to 10 men.
At 1-0 up and with an extra man on the pitch, the opportunity was there for the Republic to completely kill off the tie. Would Trapattoni step up rather than stand off? The answer was an emphatic yes.
In the second half they started to stretch the game in a manner not normally associated with the team recently. Keane finally found space in the penalty area with 22 minutes to go and scooped over a delightfully inventive cross for Jonathan Walters to head home.
Three minutes later the Estonia goalkeeper Sergei Pareiko could not hold Andrew's low free-kick, allowing Keane to get on the score-sheet himself.
Soon after Estonia lost their other centre-half when Raio Piiroja was also sent off after picking up a second booking for handball. By then, the hosts were in disarray, Keane making it 4-0 from a penalty with two minutes to go when Ats Purje brought down substitute Stephen Hunt.
"Against 10 men, we could use the ball better," Trapattoni admitted. But, asked about the uncharacteristic way in which Ireland went for the jugular, the Italian insisted that it was the result of a long period of growth for his side. "Now, I am confident about the team," he said. "Tonight, we were ready. Two years ago we were not. Tonight, we showed our identity."
Ultimately, though, any provisos about seeing off such a poor side as Estonia will not show up in the records. Nor will the fact that the opposition folded after one red card and collapsed after two. What they will show is that Trapattoni is set to end Ireland's long wait for an international tournament and deliver them to just their fifth overall. They're almost there.
Estonia (4-4-2): Pareiko; Jaager, Stepanov, Piiroja, Klavan; Kink, Dmitrijev, Vunk, Kruglov; Vassiljev, Ahjupera (Voskoboinikov, 55).
Republic of Ireland (4-4-2): Given; Kelly, St Ledger, Dunne, Ward; Duff (Hunt, 73), Whelan (Fahey, 78), Andrews, McGeady; Walters (Simon Cox, 80), Keane.
Referee V Kassai (Hungary).Reuse content