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Baltic cruise for Trap

IT'S almost as if there's another power at work here shoving the Republic of Ireland towards the Euro 2012 finals. That force, most definitely, is with Giovanni Trapattoni.

Lucky? Unbelievably so. Never before in any draw of any description have the pieces fallen into place so kindly for Ireland and with such little fuss.

Normally, dealings with UEFA and FIFA at this time of the year are fraught and in the past, play-offs have become embroiled in wars, earthquakes and international politics.

This time there were no scares, no conspiracy theories and no forensic examination of the table-tennis balls needed as they rolled around the bowl in Krakow.

In went Zbigniew Boniek's hand and out it came with the piece of paper everyone in Ireland longed for.

The irony is that across Estonia, they were praying for exactly the same outcome. They've already experienced one version of Ireland in qualifying and they liked what they saw.

Six points collected will give them a happy glow and the sense that the Republic of Ireland can't be much better than Northern Ireland, can they?

A look at Trapattoni's statistics from the group phase should make for more sobering reading but if they examine each game along Ireland's road to the play-off they will find reasons to be optimistic.

But it could have been a Bosnian side on the up, emboldened by the fact that they almost tamed the French.

It could have been Montengro, a team we saw at close quarters just a few years ago and one which no international manager would choose for a knock-out assignment.

Or it could have been Turkey, semi-finalists last time around and with a reputation for dealing out harsh medicine on and off the pitch to visiting teams and their fans.

But no, it was Estonia, a country with extensive recent links to Ireland and unless they have all gone home, can muster a very significant number of supporters in the Aviva if they hit the FAI website and other ticket outlets early and often.

But the threat they present on the field is recognisable and nothing like the tricky football Russia, Slovakia and Armenia subjected Trapattoni's often leaden-footed players to both in the Aviva and beyond.

Estonia have surfed a wave in this campaign, fell off as often as they pulled off a big trick but most notably of all, they went to Belgrade and beat Serbia.

That's the result that makes a side pause for thought but only briefly. Estonia, like all the other small nations Trapattoni has bumped into in the past three years, should be beaten relatively comfortably and defeat is unthinkable.

Even the FAI could smile a communal smile though from a financial point of view. Turkey's vast satellite network would have produced the biggest payday and Estonia's televisual footprint is tiny by comparison.

But that was about the only reason anyone would have chosen a trip to Istanbul, Izmir, Bursa or somewhere even more far flung.

Tallinn's tidy little stadium will only have room for 1,400 Irish supporters but it is old ground for many of them and despite the usual airline ticket scalping which immediately kicked in when Estonia's name came out of the hat, the allocation will be snapped up.

Those of us who were on the gig when Jack Charlton took Ireland to visit Baltic nations only recently released from the yoke of Soviet oppression, experienced backward countries with little to recommend them other than the friendliness of people who lived in poor circumstances.

Fortunes

They stood and watched pubs run dry and made small fortunes supplying the raw materials which sustained Jack's foot soldiers.

They came to Ireland in their thousands after they experienced the rolling maul which was Jack's Army on manoeuvres, deeply impressed by the amount of cash ordinary supporters were able to lavish on entertainment.

Ireland boomed and Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians sent millions back home to help raise living standards and ambition.

Now, of course, everything has reset to the point we were are almost back where we started 20 years ago. In the meantime, the ties between Ireland and the Baltic nations are strong indeed.

There will be families in Ireland who hail from Estonia but will have kids born in Ireland and Ireland fans will empathise with a small country trying for a first big break in international football. But only to a point.

Ireland fans now have a huge expectation about this play-off and plans are already being made and maps of Poland and the Ukraine being scrutinised.

Trapattoni's approach to the game will be forgiven if not forgotten if he delivers the prize and we will then see if he is true to his word and makes the kind of changes needed to release his squad from the strait-jacket he has imposed.

Between now and the play-off, he will tap into his network in Italy and ask those who prepared for and beat Estonia twice in the qualifying campaign.

If he wants it, he could give Brian Kerr a call, though enough criticism has come to Trapattoni from that source to suggest that a meeting of minds might not be possible.

But it would be a waste of Kerr's ability to document an opponent and identify weaknesses if Trapattoni does not seek his help.

This is a time for all shoulders to be put to the wheel. The issue of Trapattoni's new contract is no longer really relevant and there is almost a consensus that he must qualify to win two more years.

If that happens, he will hold the power in his relationship with the FAI but nobody out in Abbotstown will care. He will have done his job and done it well.