Ireland’s hopes of qualifying for next year’s World Cup in Russia hang by a thread after collecting just one point from their last two matches.
Saturday’s draw against Georgia in Tbilisi and Tuesday’s 1-0 defeat at home to Serbia have left Martin O’Neill’s side in third place in Group D, with Moldova and Wales left to play against in this campaign.
On the face of it, it looks bad. Ireland are five points behind Serbia with two games remaining and, as such, their chances of going to Russia without a playoff are virtually zero. Indeed, finishing second in this group would be no guarantee of even reaching the playoffs wither due to the fact that one runner-up from the nine groups will be missing out and the points total now doesn’t look promising.
However, all hope is not lost. Ireland can still take a place in Russia – but at the very least, six points to finish the group off are essential.
The group, right now, looks like this:
— #WCQ (@FIFAWorldCup) September 5, 2017
Ireland are one point behind Wales which means that victory in their last two matches means that the Boys in Green will finish second in the group regardless of what happens between the Welsh and Georgia in their penultimate match. In that regard, Ireland’s fate is still in their own hands, but…
At this moment in time, Wales are out of the playoff spots in the runner-up mini-league. Results against bottom-placed side in each group that has six teams are shaved off in this table, meaning their two victories against Moldova count for nothing in here.
Ireland, while not much better off, would have ten points in this pool if they were in it and thus would be ahead of Bosnia & Herzegovina going into the last two games. Victory in those would see Ireland on 13 points in here (19 overall) and that’s where the real fun begins.
Whichever of Portugal or Switzerland finishes second in Group B is assured of a playoff spot so that’s one down already, while Italy and Northern Ireland will almost certainly have little to worry about going into the final two games.
Group E is a possibility, though Poland should have enough to win the group from here on out and whichever of Denmark or Montenegro finishes in second should pick up a win between them against a poor lower half of the group. Sweden in Group A, meanwhile, would hit that magic 13 mark with victory against Luxembourg.
Which leaves two options, each with an interesting and complicated set of permutations. Bosnia’s group seems the obvious one to target given the fact that their record is worse than Ireland’s right now. They face Belgium and Estonia in their remaining matches and would have to win at least one, possibly both of those to stay in contention. If they fall short, Greece or Cyprus could overtake them but their records are equally poor.
England’s group could also provide Ireland with a lifeline, but that’s a bit messier. Scotland defeating Slovakia and England defeating Slovenia would put Gordon Strachan’s side into second place going into the final round of fixtures, but then only the Scots dropping points way to Slovenia would be good for Ireland (all distinct possibilities nonetheless).
If all of that falls into plan, Ireland’s thirteen points will be enough for a playoff, which FIFA have since confirmed will be seeded so a potential trip to Portugal or Italy could still be in the offing even if they do achive second place.
All-in-all, an awful lot has to go right for Martin O’Neill and Ireland between now and the end of the group stage. But all hope is not yet lost.