Pitch poser threatens Irish upsurge

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The Independent Online

When Craig Brown's Scots kicked off against Estonia in 1996, there was, famously, "only one team in Tallinn". When the Baltic side turn up as well, however, the opposition usually have a game on their hands, and the Republic of Ireland must grant them due respect in this evening's World Cup qualifying tie in order to avoid an anti-climatic end to an otherwise successful season.

The quality of floodlighting was the problem five years ago, when the kick-off was moved to the afternoon at short notice. At this time of year, matches in Tallinn could almost be played in the middle of the night, so long are the daylight hours, and it is the pitch which is a cause of greater concern. Described by one Football Association of Ireland official as "absolutely desperate", it is being used for the fourth time in six days as the new national stadium is pressed into service before it is ready.

Typically, the Republic's manager, Mick McCarthy, is not about to allow his players an advance excuse for the sort of performance that has sometimes let them down in the past against inferior teams. "There is no point it being a concern, because it is not going to change," he said. "Both teams have to play on it."

On Saturday, it clearly did not suit the Netherlands, who were 2-1 down with seven minutes to go before winning 4-2. From Estonia's point of view, that mirrored a late collapse against Scotland in Edinburgh three years ago, while also serving as a useful reminder of their capabilities. Essentially a defensive side, they neither win nor lose by large margins and have not so far been the fodder for improving goal-difference for which the more fancied teams in European Group Two might have hoped.

Portugal and Ireland, like the Dutch, beat them by only two goals ­ Mart Poom, of Derby County, kept the score down when his country visited Dublin last October. Poom is now injured, though the Republic have also lost their most important player; Roy Keane is suspended, and they cannot rely on a team with nine players from a club called Flora having a soft centre.

Ipswich Town's Matt Holland will replace Keane ­ in the sense that anyone can replace him ­ and will find the playing surface an uncomfortable contrast to the one at Portman Road, which won Alan Ferguson the "groundsman of the year" award this season. "It's a bit bumpy and not perfect," Holland admitted, but we're not going to worry about it. We can use Niall Quinn to our advantage."

The 6ft 4in Quinn will be happy to have the ball in the air, whether attempting yet again to break Frank Stapleton's record of 20 goals for Ireland or to set up Robbie Keane, scorer of the only goal by an Irish striker in the current qualifying campaign.

One record certain to go is for the highest number of appearances, which Aston Villa's Steve Staunton will raise to 89, overhauling Tony Cascarino. Staunton will also take over the captain's armband from Roy Keane. The only other change following the 1-1 draw at home to Portugal on Saturday could see Blackburn's Damien Duff replace Gary Kelly or Kevin Kilbane as a wide midfielder. Duff did well in a cameo role on Saturday, before McCarthy's second substitution, taking Quinn off, unwittingly handed the initiative to Portugal.

Tonight the Portuguese will be expected to win more handsomely at home to Cyprus than Ireland do here. In a group in which expectations have often been confounded, one of the more reliable sources has been the Dublin magician The Great Rondo, who has again followed the team on their travels, after successfully predicting the scoreline away to Andorra and Cyprus. The great one's tip this time: Estonia 1 Ireland 3.

ESTONIA (probable, 4-2-3-1): Kaalma (Flora Tallinn); Saviauk, Stepanov, Piiroja (all Flora), U Rooba (Midtjylland); Reim, Novikov; Haavistu, Kristal (all Flora), Oper (Aalborg); Zelinski (Flora).

REPUBLIC OF IRELAND (probable, 4-4-2): Given (Newcastle); Carr (Tottenham), Staunton (Aston Villa), Dunne (Man-chester City), Harte (Leeds); Kelly (Leeds) or Duff (Blackburn), Kinsella (Charlton), Holland (Ipswich Town), Kilbane (Sunderland); Robbie Keane (Leeds), Quinn (Sunderland).

Referee: M Salomir (Romania).

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