World Cup 2018: What do Ireland need to qualify?
Two wins from their final two games might not be enough to secure a place in playoffs
Shane Long on the floor during Ireland’s qualifier defeat to Serbia. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
So, who has qualified out of the European groups so far?
Just one team, Belgium, although for another few qualification now looks to be something of a formality.
How many sides are still in contention?
Mathematically, 30 teams are still battling it out to be included in the draw for the finals on December 1st with 24, Ireland included, still capable of topping their groups. Of those, Northern Ireland, Serbia, Germany, Portugal, Spain and Switzerland are guaranteed a top two finish with the last four also guaranteed at least a play-off spot.
But Ireland have to win their last two games to have any chances of making a play-off now, right?
Well, not quite; there is the possibility that a draw in Cardiff would do although the combination of results required for that to be enough would suggest we might very well be subjected to some “luck of the Irish” comments from abroad.
Essentially, if Wales were to slip up in Tbilisi, as they have done before, and Ireland beat Moldova then Martin O’Neill and his men would only need a point in that their last game to finish second. The problem is that when the time came to rank the second placed sides, they would have just 11 points from their games against teams that finished 1st, 3rd, 4th and 5th.
And that won’t be enough to make the play-offs?
Probably not. As it happens, it was in each of the last two campaigns - with the solitary team on 10 points losing out on each occasion - but this time the bar looks set to be slightly higher. It is possible it would be enough with, for instance, a couple of ways in which Group H could produce a second placed side with just 10 points, but, on the other hand, it is currently possible that Ireland might win both games, have 13 points in that playoff table, and still be the team that missed out.
Clearly, they will be in with a much better shout in the event that they win both games which, in reality, they will probably have to do finish ahead of Wales. But even then, they are handicapped by their current goal difference against the top five sides which is only plus one.
So what are Ireland’s chances?
There are still so many variables that it is difficult to be precise on that although the enthusiast-run US based data analysis site weglobalfootball.com have given it a pretty detailed go; they forecast that Northern Ireland, Italy, Denmark Slovakia, Sweden, Portugal, Wales and Iceland will secure the eight places in the play-offs with the second placed team in Group H missing out.
They estimate Ireland’s chances of finishing second now at 37.3 per cent and their chances of making the play-offs at fractionally over one in five. If Ireland do manage to secure second place then they reckon O’Neill’s side have a 55 per cent chance of also nailing down place in the play-offs.
And if they do, will the draw for those games be seeded?
Yes. As usual Fifa left it late to clarify this point but they got to it on Wednesday when they announced details of the draw on October 17th, and confirmed the eight participants would indeed be seeded based on their positions in the Fifa World Ranking list due to be released the previous day.
Replacing Wales with Ireland in the list as forecast by WeGlobalFootball and taking the current ranking list as a guide, the draw would be set up as follows...
Seeded: Portugal, Italy, Sweden and Iceland. Unseeded: Slovakia, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland and Denmark.
As things stand, if Wales qualify instead of Ireland, they will bump Iceland out of the seeds.
So, even if things go well, they will not know for sure if they have made it until the final whistle in Cardiff?
Actually, with games in three groups (A, B and H) still to be played the night after Ireland’s game in Cardiff, it is not entirely out of the question that Martin O’Neill and co. might win both of their remaining games but still not know for 24 hours whether they have secured their play-off place.