Shay Given has called it the biggest game of his career and although that may be over-egging the pudding somewhat, there is no doubting the Republic of Ireland’s European Championship play-off double header with Estonia is a huge opportunity for the Irish to put recent bad luck stories behind them and qualify for a major international tournament for the first time since 2002.
The hard-fought road to Poland and Ukraine is now at the sudden-death stage, with the stakes high and the Republic strong favourites to see off the young, talented but inconsistent Estonia.
The Estonians are undoubtedly there for the taking – they have lost three of their last eight home games – but how attack-minded will coach Giovanni Trapattoni be when he sets up his troops in Tallinn on Friday night?
It is an important question to ask when thinking about goalscorers: Ireland have kept five clean sheets in the last six away games, part of a 13-match unbeaten away sequence. If Trapattoni decides he wants a draw to take back to Dublin on Tuesday night, the 11/2 on no goalscorer could be a massive play.
If Keane was last seen in the Premier League with relegated West Ham running around like a lost primary school child (with the first touch to match), then there is no doubting his talismanic presence in the Ireland team and the 9/2 he opens the scoring is a fair price.
But if Ireland are going to grab a vital away goal, my money will be on the man who has been an Irish hero so many times down the years: Robbie Keane.
Stationed over the pond with David Beckham at LA Galaxy in the top-flight retirement fund boost that is the MLS, Keane’s club career has been in an abject downward spiral ever since his ill-fated move to Liverpool in 2008.
Yet if he was last seen in the Premier League with relegated West Ham running around like a lost primary school child (with the first touch to match), then there is no doubting his talismanic presence in the Ireland team and the 9/2 he opens the scoring is a fair price for someone with such an impressive international goalscoring record.
Keane is the Republic’s top goalscorer of all time with 51, but his strikes are not a distant memory. The former Spurs hitman scored five goals in nine qualifying games to help Ireland to a second-placed finish and with the largely workmanlike and efficient team set up to make the most of his predatory instincts, there is no question Keane, 6/5 to score anytime, will be in prime position to net an all-important away goal.
As for Estonia, it is difficult to know what to expect from a team capable of taking four points from Serbia yet conspiring to lose against Faroe Islands. Yet the second-placed finish in Group C ahead of Serbia, Slovenia and Northern Ireland was a fantastic achievement for coach Tarmo Ruutli, helped in no small part by the goals of midfielder Konstantin Vassiljev, who represents good value at 9/1 to score first and 5/2 to net anytime.
I tipped Vassiljev to score when Estonia were in Northern Ireland and he duly obliged with two goals in a 2-1 win, the second of which was an absolute screamer.
That took his tally in qualifying to five – an excellent return for a midfielder in a group that contained Italy – and with him on set-piece and penalty duty, Vassiljev is the man most likely to damage Ireland’s Euro 2012 hopes.
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