THE Republic of Ireland should exert constant pressure on Estonia’s defence to force errors that will clinch qualification for the final stages of Euro 2012.
That’s the verdict of Gary Johnson, the former head coach of Latvia, who has expert insight into the qualities of Baltic national teams.
“It’s important for Ireland to treat Estonia with proper respect, and I’m sure they will,” says Johnson, now manager of Npower League Two side Northampton Town.
“Ireland must be aware what it means to Estonia to reach a play-off like this. It’s massive for the whole country,” he adds. The fact that tickets for the first leg in Tallinn were snapped up within 25 minutes of going on sale proves his point.
“In view of Estonia’s motivation, Ireland will have to compete with them every step of the way. At the same time, it would be a mistake to show them too much respect,” Johnson warns. “If Ireland stand off and give them time to develop their play, they could end up in trouble.”
Johnson believes that, although Estonia have made great progress, their defence remains vulnerable to sustained attack. “If Ireland play with passion and ability, they certainly should qualify, but it’s important that they pose a constant threat.
“Estonia’s defence is not used to dealing with forwards of Ireland’s ability, and the more pressure you put them under, the harder it becomes for them to keep concentration. That’s how mistakes happen,” says Johnson.
In that regard, Damien Duff was doubtless encouraged by how easily he beat Estonia goalkeeper Sergei Pareiko to score the first goal in Fulham’s 4-1 Europa League win against Wisla Krakow last week.
The former manager of Latvia has noticed big changes in the attitude and mentality of Baltic national teams in recent years.
“When I arrived in Riga in 1999 I found that all the Baltic sides played with a sweeper,” Johnson recalls.
“That was a legacy from the Soviet era, but unless your sweeper is Franz Beckenbaue, it’s not a system that’s going to get you anywhere. I taught Latvia to adopt a flat back-four and the same thing caught on in Estonia and Lithuania.”
Johnson also encountered a safety-first outlook that made progress hard to achieve. “The typical approach was, ‘Let’s try to get a 0-0 draw, and don’t cross the halfway line unless we have to’. I encouraged them to be more ambitious, so even if we lost, at least we played some football. Back then the counter-attack was their basic style of play, but today there’s more variety.
“Teams like Estonia now get their best players into dangerous positions more often, and it’s no fluke that Konstantin Vassiljev scored five goals in the qualifying matches.”
Johnson left the Latvia job in 2001, and he was proud when his successor, Aleksandrs Starkovs, led Latvian to the Euro 2004 finals after a dramatic play-off win against Turkey.
“Latvia’s achievement will be a motivating factor for Estonia against Ireland,” says Johnson. “But above all, they’ll want to do it for themselves. Estonia will be energised by beating Northern Ireland twice in their qualifying group. So it’s a dangerous tie for Ireland, but they’re still favourites to get through.”
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