For the Republic of Ireland national team, the only good thing about 2020 is that the year, for them, is almost over.
But, if Ireland can get a favourable qualification draw for the 2022 World Cup on Monday evening, then the year may end on a positive note.
The Ireland team have experienced an incredibly difficult 12-month period. Stephen Kenny’s team have played eight games this year. Ireland have lost seven and earned one point – a 1-1 draw with Bulgaria in September.
They have missed out on qualification for Euro 2020, which is due to be partly-staged in Dublin, and narrowly avoided relegation from the Uefa Nations League B.
Ireland’s miserable 2020.
Shane Duffy has scored the team’s only goal this year and Ireland have since gone over 11 hours without scoring a goal. Kenny’s plans have been blighted by injuries and withdrawals due to Covid-19. His attempts to implement a more progressive style of play have been hampered by these disruptions and, ultimately, a talent deficiency in the squad.
Ireland fans, however, must not forget that before Kenny took over, the national team weren’t exactly world-beaters. Under Mick McCarthy, and in the final year of Martin O’Neill’s reign, Ireland only won competitive matches against Gibraltar and Georgia.
Since that night against Denmark in November 2017, when Ireland lost 5-1 in the World Cup play-off, the Ireland team have had a miserable three years.
Yet, Kenny desperately needs results to improve when the World Cup qualification campaign begins in March.
Here are the expected Uefa pots for the 2022 World Cup. The draw takes place on Monday, December 5 in Zurich. Ireland are in Pot 3.
Pot 1: Belgium, France, England, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Denmark, Croatia, Germany, Netherlands.
Pot 2: Switzerland, Poland, Sweden, Wales, Austria, Ukraine, Turkey, Serbia, Slovakia, Romania.
Pot 3: Russia, Republic of Ireland, Norway, Hungary, Czech Republic, Scotland, Iceland, Northern Ireland, Finland, Greece.
Pot 4: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Albania, Bulgaria, Belarus, Israel, Georgia, Luxembourg.
Pot 5: Armenia, Cyprus, Faroe Islands, Azerbaijan, Estonia, Kosovo, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Latvia, Andorra.
Pot 6: Moldova, Malta, Liechtenstein, Gibraltar, San Marino.
Ireland in Pot 3 for World Cup qualification draw.
Due to Ireland’s results in the Nations League, the team will be in Pot 3. If Ireland had have beaten Bulgaria in their final Uefa Nations League game, they would have been in Pot 2. It won’t be easy for Kenny either way.
To automatically qualify for the Qatar World Cup, a team must finish top of their qualification group. Teams that finish second will go into a playoff.
Ireland face a big task to secure a playoff, never mind qualify automatically.
Here are the worst and best-case draws for Stephen Kenny and the Ireland team.
The worst World Cup qualification draw for Ireland.
- Republic of Ireland
- Bosnia and Herzegovina
This is arguably the worst World Cup qualification draw Ireland could receive.
There are no good draws from Pot 1, but as they showed last week in a 3-0 friendly victory, England are vastly superior to Ireland. If the Ireland team can avoid two morale-sapping defeats against them, that would be a bonus.
Ireland, inevitably, compares itself to their neighbour, and the Irish players seemed floored after losing at Wembly last week. It would be best for Kenny and the team to avoid England in the World Cup draw.
In Pot 2, Switzerland look the most dangerous, alongside Poland. The Swiss outplayed Mick McCarthy’s Ireland last year in qualifying for Euro 2020, comfortably winning the away tie and drawing in Dublin. They are a more talented team than Ireland.
In Pot 3, Bosnia and Herzegovina would be a tricky draw for Kenny’s team. Ireland beat them to reach Euro 2016, but there was little between the sides and Bosnia are a more technically gifted side. The Boys in Green will have enough trouble overcoming the top two seeds in their qualification group without having to face a fourth seed of equal or arguably more quality.
There are no standout teams in Pots 5 and 6, but Armenia and Moldova are the best of a modest bunch. Kenny will be hoping for more comfortable opposition though.
The best World Cup qualification draw for Ireland.
- Republic of Ireland
- San Marino
Croatia finished as runners-up at the 2018 World Cup, and they have Luka Modric, a world-class midfielder. However, they have struggled for form over the last few months. Croatia have only won two of their last eight games. They would undoubtedly be the favourites to top this group, but they arguably aren’t as daunting for Ireland as France, England or Belgium would be.
Denmark aren’t as talented as Croatia, so on paper, they would represent a more favourable Pot 1 draw. But no-one associated with Irish or Danish football wants to be drawn together again after facing each other six times in the last three years.
In Pot 2, Slovakia would be a favourable draw for Ireland. Kenny’s team should have beaten them in the Euro 2020 playoff. And Slovakia rode their luck against Northern Ireland in the playoff final.
Marek Hamsik, their best and most experienced player, will be 34 next summer and is in the autumn of his career. If Ireland cannot gain at least four points against them over two games, then reaching the World Cup will surely be beyond Kenny’s team.
The rest of the group is made up of international minnows who could, hopefully from Ireland’s perspective, be primed for confidence-boosting wins.
Ireland need some good luck.
Following Ireland’s goalless draw with Bulgaria, Roy Keane said things could get a lot worse for the Ireland team, and he’s not wrong. Stephen Kenny has taken on a difficult task.
The current Ireland team is lacking in confidence, quality in critical positions and squad depth. The team is a mix of experienced players, most of whom are out of form or not playing regularly at club level, and a batch of younger players who could potentially develop into quality international players.
There are also several lower-league players who make up the squad and look a step below the level required in international football. Kenny has to mould this into a cohesive team, with the added pressure of the public expecting a more progressive style of play and better results. It won’t be easy, no matter who the team face.
However, for the World Cup draw, if Kenny can get the one thing he has lacked so far – good luck – and Ireland receive a favourable group, one or two positive results next March will stop the rot.
(Originally published on November 19, 2020).