As things stand Italy, Denmark, Croatia or one of Portugal/Switzerland stand in the Republic of Ireland’s way from appearing at their first World Cup since 2002.
While each nation possess their own pros and cons, Martin O’Neill will know his Irish side will leave no stone unturned as they aim to put the heartbreak of their 2009 World Cup playoff defeat to France behind them and once again join the world’s elite in Russia next summer.
We take a closer look at who Ireland could meet in the October 17th draw.
Italy came runners up to Spain in Group G and were always going to struggle against the quality of the Spanish. Despite drawing with them just over a year ago in Turin, Spain showed their true quality and emphatically beat the Italians 3-0 in Madrid last month.
Spanish games aside though and Ireland can take some positives from Group G should they be paired with Gian Piero Ventura’s men.
They found it difficult to see off Macedonia on two occasions with their first meeting in Skopje just over a year ago where the Italians took the lead only for Macedonia to peg them back scoring twice to take the lead. The Italians needed two late goals to win it, one in stoppage time.
The return fixture last week in Turin saw Italy struggle to see off the threat of Macedonia and could only manage a 1-1 draw at home letting Spain break clear in the group.
With Israel and Albania also in their group, the Italians only managed to see off both by the odd goal to nil and more often than not scoring late on. This suggests should Martin O’Neill’s men face the daunting task of Italy in the playoffs that all is not lost and the efforts of Macedonia should be part of our preparations.
Many suggest Denmark would be the best opponent for the Republic of Ireland, and their results in Group E suggest there may be little between the teams.
The Danes only finished a point better off than the Irish in qualifying and had some unconvincing performances. Montenegro beat them in Copenhagen while they travelled to Poland and beat the eventual group winners 4-0, suggesting they blow hot and cold.
Despite beating the leaders Poland, they finished five points behind them.
Their best player, Christian Eriksen of Totttenham scored eight goals in qualifying and would be the biggest threat to the Irish defence while Leicester City’s Kasper Schmeichel would be an obstacle in goal.
Croatia would be a tricky draw for the Republic, despite Iceland causing an upset and winning Group I in a group with Ukraine, Turkey, Finland and Kosovo.
Mario Mandžukić would be a handful for the Irish defence and the creativity of Real Madrid star Luka Modric could cause the Irish problems.
However, Croatia only managed a 1-1 draw with Turkey on the opening day and lost the return fixture in Eskişehir. Despite winning 6-0 in Kosovo, they only managed a 1-0 win in Zagreb.
Their manager Ante Cacic was sacked last week following a 1-1 draw with Finland, leaving them with the task of going to Kiev and needing to get a result.
They did just that but there is a feeling all is not right in the camp and while they should not be underestimated their results against the lesser nations in qualifying would give O’Neill some reason to be optimistic should we be heading to Zagreb.
We could be drawing them at the right time.
Perhaps surprisingly, Switzerland lead the way in Group B and European Championship winners Portugal have a fight on their hands to avoid the playoffs.
The Swiss have yet to drop a point this campaign and beat Portugal comfortably in Basel in September of last year.
The return fixture is Tuesday night, with the Swiss knowing a point will see them advance to Russia. They have scored 23 times – only conceding five – while Portugal have scored seven more times than them, conceding one less. Their goal difference and three points tonight will see them win the group.
Despite leading the group Haris Seferović is Switzerland’s top goal scorer on just four goals, highlighting the goal scoring capabilities throughout their team.
Cristiano Ronaldo is top goal scorer on fifteen goals for the Portuguese with Martin O’Neill unlikely to fancy facing the Real Madrid ace, although James McClean might relish the challenge.
Group B is going right to the wire and Martin O’Neill would do well to avoid either nation in Tuesday’s draw.
For now, whoever we get, we are just happy to be there.
Damien McEvoy Pundit Arena
In this weeks episode of the Mixer Irish football podcast we reflect on Ireland’s fantastic result in Wales, discuss the future of Irish football with Joe Gamble and analyse the latest League of Ireland Premier Division action.