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Estonia's UEFA EURO 2012 success story is perhaps the most unlikely of all the sides in the play-offs – and they hope there is another shock in store as the Republic of Ireland come to Tallinn.
Coach Tarmo Rüütli made no secret of his envy of the players that opposite number Giovanni Trapattoni can call upon as he looked ahead to Friday's opening leg, which will be the first football match watched by Estonia's president Toomas Hendrik Ilves. "Sometimes when I look at the videos I dream that it is my team, that I can lead them," Rüütli said. "
I cannot say I was happy to draw them in the play-offs but we must be ready for them."
The visitors, meanwhile, have to be ready for an Estonia team capable of dizzying highs and bewildering lows. They outpaced seasoned campaigners Serbia and Slovenia – not to mention Northern Ireland – to finish second in Group C despite losing to the Faroe Islands. Fans in Tallinn sense more magic in the air: tickets for the Ireland game were sold out within 30 minutes.
An injury to striker Sergei Zenjov in the run-up to the match has prompted Rüütli to recall Joel Lindpere, with the New York Red Bulls midfielder eager to get back to action having announced his retirement from international football earlier in the campaign. "We are a small country and we don't have many players in the same class," said goalkeeper Sergei Pareiko. "I think we now have a secret weapon in Lindpere."
Another United States-based player, LA Galaxy forward Robbie Keane, will be crucial to Irish hopes as they begin their sixth play-off since the one-off 1995 loss to the Netherlands. Most of the squad whose FIFA World Cup ambitions were ended in a similar scenario against France two years ago are still involved, yet some go even further back, with Shay Given in goal when the Republic lost to Belgium in 1997.
"There is a real calmness in the camp, everyone is very relaxed and I think that comes with experience," said Keane, a veteran of Ireland's last final tournament, the 2002 World Cup. "We have been through this a few times, especially last time against France, and we know what to expect. We know how tough it will be.
"For players like myself, Shay Given and Richard Dunne, this could be our last opportunity to qualify so we have to grab this with both hands," the 31-year-old added. "
We have worked really, really hard to get this far and we can't let it slip away. Every player is desperate to qualify and qualification could change the whole country, give the country a massive boost."
Trapattoni has one selection decision still to make – who will partner Keane up front. At the pre-match media conference the Ireland boss named ten of his starting XI, but has yet to choose whether Jonathan Walters or Simon Cox will play alongside Keane. Stephen Ward returns from suspension while Stephen Kelly replaces the injured John O'Shea at right-back.
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