We all know the story of Ireland's failed attempt to make the 2010 World Cup: France and the Republic of Ireland were involved in the playoff rounds, with the winner taking the spot in South Africa. Les Bleus won the first round, played in Dublin, but Robbie Keane scored first in France. The game moved on to extra time, where William Gallas scored the winner -- but captain Thierry Henry admitted he'd handled the ball in the run-up to the goal. Karma took its revenge on France, however, with the squad being eliminated in the group stages.
Flash forward two years, and Ireland are involved in yet another playoff match, this time to earn qualification to Euro 2012. The Irish haven't qualified for the Euros since 1988, when they were eliminated in the first round. In this year's Euro 2012 qualification, the Boys in Green were in a group with Russia, Slovakia, Armenia, Macedonia and Andorra. It seemed a simple enough group -- yes, Russia would likely take top, but it would be easy enough for Ireland to take second place. But the final places in Group B weren't decided until the final round, with Slovakia folding like a cheap table and Armenia putting up a surprisingly good fight.So now it's on to the two-legged playoff round, with Ireland drawn against Estonia. In the group stages, Estonia earned a middling 16 points, as compared to Ireland's 21, but Estonia were stuck in Group C, in which Italy dominated, and locked in fierce competition with Serbia, who finished on 15 points. Had Serbia not foolishly conceded three points to Italy by virtue of their fans being idiotic, Ireland could be facing a much more difficult matchup.
As it is, Ireland travel to Tallin, the capital of Estonia, where they play the first leg in the A. Le Coq Arena. Yes, I did giggle like a 13-year-old boy (they also have a player named Kink, so get your puns ready). Considering I know nothing of Estonia save for watching them play against Italy -- Italy won both games with a combined scoreline of 5-1, by the way -- I'll just share random facts, like the fact that the national team is known as the Sinisärgid (Blueshirts). They also lost to Basque Country (!) in a friendly back in May. Their players tend to demonstrate their wares in what might be termed the lesser leagues, including the Netherlands, Russia, and Norway. Fans of MLS might recognize the name of Joel Lindpere, midfielder for the New York Red Bulls. But that's where my knowledge stops, and I will not pretend to have more.
But Ireland, I got them down: Richard Dunne and Shay Given will carry the team to glory. Well, if someone manages to score, at least, as it's tough to win a playoff round without a goal. Perhaps Estonia will have an own goal? Just kidding -- Ireland performed fairly well in the group stages, winning six and losing just one match. Eight different goalscorers contributed to the Euro campaign (including Dunney!) so perhaps I should stop with the teasing. Ireland, after all, are highly favored to win this match, and assuming they don't fall apart at the seams, they should manage an appearance at Euro 2012.
There have been a few changes to the Ireland squad. Given and Dunne, you'll remember, sat out training earlier in the week with knocks, but both are anticipated to start on Friday night. Kevin Doyle is suspended for the first leg, sadly enough for Ireland, so either Jonathan Walters or Simon Cox will play up front with Robbie Keane. John O'Shea is hurt, so Stephen Kelly steps in at right back. Beyond those changes, the rest of the team will be as per usual, but we'll make sure to share the confirmed lineups tomorrow in our gameday thread.
For information about the other three matches, which are less directly related to those who care about Aston Villa, check out SB Nation Soccer's page -- and give them a follow on Twitter as well. If we don't shout them out, they won't ever tweet our stories. They're vengeful like that.