Euro 2016: How can Ireland qualify for the last 16?
Ahead of Ireland’s clash with Belgium take a look at how O’Neill’s side can advance from Group E
Ireland train ahead of their Group E clash with Belgium in Bordeaux. Photo: EPA
Italy’s 1-0 defeat of Sweden on Friday afternoon looks to be good news for Ireland ahead of their clash with Belgium in Bordeaux on Saturday. So, with just three games to go in Group E, let’s take a look at what the Italian win means for Ireland.
Firstly, Italy are now through to the last 16 with six points. Only Ireland can surpass that total if they beat Belgium tomorrow and then beat the Italians on Wednesday.
The chances of getting a result on Wednesday will have been boosted however by Italy’s win. Antonio Conte will now most likely rest players for the clash with Ireland in Lille.
In particular Gianluigi Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini, Eder, Danielle De Rossi, Leonardo Bonucci and Thiago Motta may be left out of the starting 11 as all are on yellow cards. Another booking for any of those players would see them suspended for Italy’s last 16 clash before card records are cleared in the quarter-finals.
Interestingly the rules have been changed this year to bring in a two-game ban before card records are cleared. That means that Chiellini, Bonnuci, Eder and Motta (who were all yellow carded in the opening game) couldn’t play the tactic of deliberately picking up a booking against Sweden in order to miss the Ireland match and be back for the last 16.
But let’s get onto what Ireland have to do to qualify. Obviously winning two games would do it. But the chances of that happening aren’t exactly huge.
Realistically it looks like a minimum of two draws will be needed. A draw against Belgium and another against Italy would get Ireland to three points. That guarantees Martin O’Neill’s side at least third place.
If Belgium and Sweden were to draw in their final game it would mean that Ireland finish second with three points and definitely qualify for the last 16.
However, if one of those sides were to win on Wednesday, Ireland would finish in third place with three points. That means that the new system of the four best third-placed teams qualifying would come into play.
This is the first time this system has been employed in the European Championships but it was used in the World Cup on three occasions (1986, 1990 and 1994) so we can learn from that.
On those three occasions only once did a team with four points fail to reach the last 16 (Norway finished bottom of Ireland's group at the 1994 World Cup with four) while only once did a team with three points miss out.
Indeed, it was 1990 when Ireland qualified for the last 16 with three group stage draws.
As of the final whistle in Spain’s win over Turkey, there were three sides in third place with two games played. Northern Ireland and Slovakia both sit third with three points while Romania have just one point along with Czech Republic.
It’s early days as of yet but that would indicate that three draws would be enough for Ireland while a win and a loss in the final two games would all but guarantee qualification.
As for who Ireland could play if they qualified from third place, it becomes a bit of a minefield.
The winner of Group A will play the third-placed team from Group C, D or E; the winner of Group B will play the third-placed team from Group A, C, or D; the winner of Group C will play the third-placed team from Group A, B or F; the winner of Group D will play the third-placed team from Group B, E or F.
That means that, if Ireland qualify in third place they will face either the winner of Group A (certain to be France unless Switzerland beat them in their final game) or the winner of Group D (certain to be Spain unless Croatia beat them in their final game).
Whether it’s the winner of Group A or the winner of Group D depends on which groups provide the four best third-placed teams.
If Ireland qualify in first or second place it makes things a lot easier. The winner of Ireland’s group will play second place in Group D (Spain’s group), while second place faces the winner of Group F (Hungary, Portugal, Iceland and Austria).