Croatia and Republic of Ireland registered convincing away victories against Turkey and Estonia in Friday’s UEFA EURO 2012 play-off first leg matches, with both winners now overwhelming favourites to prevail in next week’s deciders.

Czech Republic also kept a clean sheet in defeating Montenegro 2-0 at home and will now fancy their chances of appearing in Poland and Ukraine next year, but none of the night’s nine goals fell in the top clash between Bosnia-Herzegovina and Portugal, with the southern Europeans now holding a slight edge for the return. reviews Friday’s matches.

The big game
Bosnia-Herzegovina 0-0 Portugal
Billed in many sections of the media before kick-off as the personal duel between Bosnia striker Edin Dzeko (Manchester City) and 2008 FIFA World Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid), the game fell short of expectations for long spells. The Portuguese looked at ease to start with and successfully disrupted their opponents’ attempts to settle into the groove, with the result that goalmouth action was a rarity at both ends.

The best chances of a slightly livelier second half fell to Ronaldo after 51 minutes and the home team’s Vedad Ibisevic six minutes from time, but both missed the target despite finding time and space close to goal.

The other matches
Turkey 0-3 Croatia

Goals: Ivica Olic (2nd minute), Mario Mandzukic (32), Vedran Corluka (51)

The re-run of the dramatic EURO 2008 quarter-final, ultimately won by the Turks on penalties, ended in near-disaster for the home side in Istanbul, as Guus Hiddink’s men now face the daunting prospect of turning around a three-goal deficit away from home.

The game was just two minutes old when Ivica Olic produced a close-range finish from a left-wing cross to silence the boisterous home faithful. The Turks pitched camp in the Croatia half, but the visitors were always a threat on the break, and Mario Mandzukic took full advantage of another defensive mistake to make it 2-0 with a header from a tight angle. Vedran Corluka headed the third from a free-kick six minutes after the restart to leave Guus Hiddink’s men with a mountain to climb in Zagreb next week.

Estonia 0-4 Republic of Ireland
Goals: Keith Andrew (13), Jon Walters (67), Robbie Keane (71, 88)

Republic of Ireland fully lived up to their billing as favourites against play-off novices Estonia and now look odds-on to appear on the European championship stage for the first time since 1988. Coach Giovanni Trapattoni recalled fit-again skipper Robbie Keane for the first leg in Tallinn, and the LA Galaxy man promptly repaid the manager’s faith with a brace on 71 and 88 minutes to put the Irish firmly in the driving seat for the second leg.

Underdogs Estonia were guilty of self-inflicted damage too, as they lost centre-backs Andrei Stepanov (35) and Raio Piiroja (77) to red cards.

Czech Republic 2-0 Montenegro
Goals: Vaclav Pilar (63), Tomas Sivok (90+2)

The match, characterised in the first half by muscular effort and tireless running from both sides, was a cautious and largely defensive affair, with just three chances worthy of the name before half-time. The Czechs, runners-up at EURO 1996 but suffering patchy form in recent years, struggled to break down the visitors’ packed rearguard for long spells, but Vaclav Pilar broke the deadlock with a long-range piledriver, before Tomas Sivok gave the tie an entirely different complexion with the home side’s second in stoppage time at the end.

Player of the day
Robbie Keane, Republic of Ireland
Robbie Keane’s second two-goal haul in qualifying took Republic of Ireland to the brink of a berth at UEFA EURO 2012. The captain and all-time leading scorer for the Boys in Green is now confident of the second major tournament appearance of his career, after helping his side reach the Round of 16 at the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™.

Goal of the day
Czech Republic-Montenegro, Vaclav Pilar (1-0, 63rd minute)
The match in Prague was already more than an hour old, and the home side were looking increasingly perplexed against Montenegro’s well-organised and stout defence. But then came Vaclav Pilar’s moment of magic: the striker latched onto Tomas Rosicky’s pass 25 yards from goal and lashed an unstoppable shot past keeper Mladen Bozovic’ despairing dive, setting the Czechs on their way to a precious home victory.

The stat
– The number of seconds into the match in Istanbul when Ivica Olic put the Croats in front. The 32-year-old was representing his country for the first time since 9 October 2010, when he sustained the serious knee injury which kept him out of action for almost a year, but he marked his long-awaited comeback in spectacular style.

Have Your Say
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