Republic of Ireland reserved their flights to Poland and Ukraine with a sterling performance in Tallinn. Jonathan Walters and Keith Andrews put them in command, before two goals from Robbie Keane – one from the spot – earned a 4-0 win over nine-man Estonia, who will now be without dismissed duo Raio Piiroja and Andrei Stepanov when they visit Dublin for the return leg on Tuesday.
Coach Giovanni Trapattoni has nevertheless warned his charges that they still have some work to do to turn the reserved tickets to into booked ones and qualify for the UEFA European Championship for only the second time - and the first since 1988.
"The cat is in the sack, but the sack is not closed," the 72-year-old said. "The cat is in it, but it's open - and it's a wild cat.
"But we have to have respect for our opponents for what they have achieved in this qualification campaign. At this moment, we are near qualifying at 4-0. But I repeat the same sentence: don't jump the gun."
Captain Keane, who made it 55 goals from 113 internationals, was less cautious. "It is a great result,” said the 31-year-old. "This game should be over now and if we don't qualify we'll be devastated. We deserve to go through because of the way we have played in the campaign."
It’s been a fine week for Keane, who scored in the 3-1 victory over Real Salt Lake on Sunday that earned Los Angeles Galaxy a place in the MLS Cup, but the former Inter Milan, Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool player preferred to salute Republic of Ireland’s other marksmen rather than enthuse about his own two-goal show against Estonia.
"Jonathan Walters is brilliant," he said. "He's a handful and he deserved to score. Keith [Andrews] was superb from the start and he drove us on from midfield. There is confidence in the squad."
'It's hard to believe'
Andrews, who is on loan at Championship outfit Ipswich Town from Premier League side Blackburn Rovers – the 31-year-old was playing for Milton Keynes Dons in the third tier of English football three years ago – expressed his delight at the Irish’s victory before urging them to put the icing on their EURO 2012 qualification cake by keeping a clean sheet at the Aviva Stadium.
"It hasn't sunk in yet," said the industrious midfielder. "It's hard to believe we have come here and won 4-0. I thought we played very well, harried them, and fortunately got the result.
"Over the past few years this group has really come together. If we keep a clean sheet it will be a fantastic night on Tuesday."