Ireland and Croatia all but seal Euro places
London: Ireland and Croatia erased bad memories with stunning football and seven goals Friday as they made preliminary bookings for the Euro 2012 finals by crushing Estonia and Turkey away.
In the other playoff first legs, Czech Republic overcame Montenegro 2-0 in Prague where Vaclav Pilar scored after 63 minutes and Tomas Sivok in added time while Bosnia and Portugal slugged out a goalless draw on a poor surface in Zenica.
Ireland, seeking to forget the disappointment of their infamous `Henry handball` playoff defeat by France in the qualifiers for the 2010 World Cup, won 4-0 in Estonia in their first leg while Croatia beat the Turks 3-0 in Istanbul.
For Croatia, it was a satisfying triumph as goals from Ivica Olic, Mario Mandzukic and Vedran Corluka went some way to exacting revenge for their quarter-final defeat by the Turks in the 2008 finals. They struck early and silenced the home crowd.
"It is virtually decided," Turkey coach Guus Hiddink said. "It was very difficult for us after they scored in the second minute -- I guess I will make changes for players who will play for their honour now."
Ireland, seeking to reach their first major tournament since the 2002 World Cup finals, galloped to victory in Tallinn thanks to a Keith Andrews header after 13 minutes and second-half strikes from Jon Walters and two from Robbie Keane, his second an 88th minute penalty.
By then, the home team were down to nine men having lost Andrei Stepanov, who was sent off after 34 minutes, and Raio Piiroja, after 77.
This left Giovanni Trapattoni`s side with a straightforward task in Tuesday`s playoff second leg in Dublin as they extended their unbeaten run to 10 games.
Captain Keane said: "We came here to get a result, but nobody thought we`d have got one like that... This game should be over now -- and if we don`t qualify we`ll be devastated."
Ireland were devastated two years ago when French striker Thierry Henry handled the ball in setting up a goal bundled in by William Gallas as France beat them to qualify for the 2010 World Cup finals in South Africa.
Trapattoni, who has rebuilt Ireland since that setback into a solid and spirited outfit with a pragmatic and powerful streak, was quick to praise his players.
"We are proud of our players because their commitment, mentality and attitude was very professional and they believed in what I asked of them," he said. "We have to be serious for Tuesday and have respect."
Both sides missed chances in Bosnia but Portugal will be the happier ahead of Tuesday`s second leg.
Portugal coach Paulo Bento said: "We had a brilliant first half and a good second half -- and we have achieved a good result here, but a dangerous one, given it`s a knockout stage. We did not score a goal, but we deserved one."
He was less enthused by the playing surface.
"Portugal played on a pitch which UEFA should not have allowed, but we tried to do the best we could," he added.
On a busy night of friendlies for teams who had already reached Euro 2012, Mario Balotelli justified his place as leader of Italy`s attack by scoring their opening goal in a 2-0 win in Poland -- co-hosts with Ukraine of next year`s tournament.
Ukraine almost produced an upset, but after leading Germany 3-1 they had to settle for a 3-3 draw in Kiev`s newly-renovated Olimpiyskiy Stadium where the 2010 World Cup semi-finalists were rescued by a 77th minute goal from Thomas Mueller.
France struggled to a lacklustre 1-0 win over the United States thanks to a second half goal from substitute Loic Remy.
"It could have been better," said coach Laurent Blanc. "But some players were playing their first game for France and we made a lot of changes."
Netherlands, losing finalists at the 2010 World Cup, also failed to impress in a 0-0 draw with Switzerland but coach Bert Van Marwijk defended his team against catcalls from the home crowd in Amsterdam.
"This team has performed excellently for three and a half years and we are widely admired for that. Today, they had a bad day against a tough opponent and didn`t deserve such a reaction from the crowd," he said.