Estonia have already outstripped expectations by finishing second in UEFA EURO 2012 qualifying Group C above Serbia and Slovenia, but their top scorer Konstantin Vassiljev knows that with one more push, they could achieve something unbelievable.
The Republic of Ireland lie between Tarmo Rüütli's side and a place at next summer's final tournament in their 11 and 15 November play-off, and the 27-year-old hopes his side can do themselves justice – and a little bit more. "Me and my team-mates were talking about that on the phone right after the draw," he told UEFA.com. "The most important thing is to avoid burning out before those games, as the tension will get higher and higher each day. We all know we might never have a chance like this again."
The Baltic nation have led something of a charmed life in qualifying; they are certainly the first side to have reached a major play-off despite losing to the Faroe Islands earlier in the campaign. That 2-0 loss on 7 June stamped out any lingering euphoria from their shock 3-1 win in Serbia earlier in the campaign, but a 2-1 victory in Estonia and back-to-back defeas of Northern Ireland thrust them up into second place, with Serbia's final-day loss in Slovenia confirming Estonia's place in the play-offs.
"We only really started to hope after the victory in Northern Ireland," said Vassiljev, reflecting on their final game, a 2-1 win in Belfast in which he scored both goals. "Luck was on our side. After the defeat in the Faroe Islands, almost all our optimism went away.
I have to thank the fans, who were with us through good and bad times. They deserve what we all have now."
Vassiljev may credit the supporters, but they would be just as eager to salute the FC Amkar Perm player for his five-goal contribution to the Estonian effort. "I know my team-mates are completely behind me, but I think that sometimes they expect too much from me," he admitted. "I am no better than any other player in our squad."
That squad has certainly done Estonia proud, given that they have never previously finished higher than fourth in a qualifying campaign. "Our skills get better and better with each year," said Vassiljev. "The players have been finding better new clubs to play at. Our coach is another great factor in our achievement. Tarmo Rüütli gets the absolute maximum out of every player. He praises us when it's needed, and brings us back down to earth when he has to."
Those skills will come in useful ahead of the play-off and, but for Vassiljev, the hope that his successes in Europe will finally earn him a regular place in the Amkar first XI. In September, he finally made his debut for the club he joined from FC Koper in August 2010, and was taken off injured after 44 minutes. He has not played for the Russian side since.
"They never forget to congratulate me for all of Estonia's successes at Amkar," concluded Vassiljev. "Now they'll probably be behind us against the Irish. Of course, people in Perm were surprised with what we achieved, but it wasn't just them; it was a shock for the whole of Europe, and in a way for us as well."
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