Ireland, Croatia set to seal Euro 2012 slots

Football

Ireland and Croatia erased bad memories with stunning football and seven goals on Friday as they made preliminary bookings for the Euro 2012 soccer finals by crushing Estonia and Turkey away.

In the other play-off 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' play-off 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 quarterfinal 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 play-off second leg in Dublin as they extended their unbeaten run to 10 games.

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. Both sides missed chances in Bosnia but Portugal will be the happier ahead of Tuesday's second leg.

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 semifinalists 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.

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.

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