Ireland posts four on shocked hosts
Ireland took a huge step toward qualification for the 2012 European Championship on Friday with a 4-0 win over nine-man Estonia in the first leg of their playoff.
Goals from Keith Andrews, Jon Walters and two in the closing stages from captain Robbie Keane gave Ireland the win, in which Estonia's poor defending was ruthlessly exposed by Giovanni Trapattoni's men.
Estonia lived up to its underdog tag, with both captain Raio Piiroja and Andrei Stepanov sent off for second bookable offences.
''Full credit to the players, they put in a great performance right to the end,'' Keane said. ''We got the early goal and managed to kick on from there.''
Looking ahead to next Tuesday's second leg in Dublin, Keane said: ''It should be all over. You can't take anything for granted but if we don't qualify we will be devastated.''
Estonia conceded 14 goals in the group stage, and the team's defensive frailty was on show at the A. Le Coq Arena.
Andrews gave Ireland the lead in the 13th minute with a deftly flicked header following a cross from Aiden McGeady. Estonia immediately had a chance to equalize, but Jarmo Ahjupera could not connect cleanly with Dmitri Kruglov's cross, and the ball dropped onto the roof of Shay Given's goal.
Kruglov could have done much better when the ball fell to him on the left-hand corner of the six yard box, but he could only hook the ball back across goal.
The game opened out as Estonia pressed for an equalizer. Tarmo Kink and Martin Vunk both fired well wide, before Konstantin Vassiljev went much closer with an effort from the edge of the penalty area.
The home side's hopes took a dive when Stepanov was dismissed in the 35th minute following a brutal challenge that upended Keane when he would have been through on goal.
Estonia switched to a three-man midfield as Ragnar Klavan moved back into defense, and the rest of the half was played out at a lower tempo.
The second half began at a frantic pace. Estonia went close to equalizing when Klavan prodded his shot wide after Vassiljev crossed low from a free-kick. Ahjupera was replaced by Vladimir Voskoboinikov, the recalled striker, who added pace and movement to the Estonian attack.
The pressure was leaving gaps in the Estonian defense, though, and in the 67th minute Ireland finally took advantage. Walters nodded down from Keane's looping pass and the ball crossed the line despite a desperate attempted clearance by Estonian defender Piiroja.
Keane made it 3-0 in the 71st minute after Pareiko spilled the ball when making a save and Estonia was reduced to nine men in the 77th minute, when Piiroja was sent off for a second bookable offence.
Keane added Ireland's fourth goal from the penalty spot in the 88th minute after a rash challenge by Enar Jaager.
Given was already thinking about the second leg.
''We're looking forward to Tuesday evening in Dublin,'' said Given. ''The fans will be in high spirits after tonight.''
Trapattoni tried to inject a note of caution, despite the margin of victory. Before the game he had bewildered journalists by saying the cat was not yet in the sack, meaning that the game was not a foregone conclusion and warning against complacency.
After the game he told the media that the cat was in the sack, but ''it is not yet closed''. He saw room for improvement in Ireland's play.
''I don't want to upset anyone by saying this, but we could have played better,'' said the Italian. ''We had 10 against 11.''
Estonia: Sergei Pareiko, Enar Jaager, Andrei Stepanov, Raio Piiroja, Ragnar Klavan, Tarmo Kink (Ats Purje, 67), Aleksandr Dmitrijev, Martin Vunk (Joel Lindpere, 61), Dmitri Kruglov, Konstantin Vassiljev, Jarmo Ahjupera (Vladimir Voskoboinikov, 55).
Ireland: Shay Given, Stephen Kelly, Stephen Ward, Sean St Ledger, Richard Dunne, Glenn Whelan (Keiyth Fahey, 78), Aiden McGeady, Keith Andrews, Jon Walters (Simon Cox, 83), Robbie Keane, Damien Duff (Stephen Hunt, 73).