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The European World Cup qualifying draw took place this evening.
Ireland’s World Cup qualification opponents were revealed earlier today. Their opponents for the upcoming campaign will be; Portugal, Serbia, Luxembourg and Azerbaijan.
Qualification for the World Cup finals is only reserved for 1st and 2nd placed teams within each group. Teams who place top of their respective groups will automatically qualify. On the other hand, runners-up will enter a play-off to determine which team goes through.
It will be a tough ask for Ireland to qualify, particularly given their poor recent form and the quality of opposition. Nevertheless, Ireland have overcome odds before and will be hoping to do so once again during this qualification campaign.
The campaign is set to kick off in March 2021, running until November of the same year. Here’s an overview of what Ireland are up against:
Portugal, being seeded in Pot 1 and having an exciting mix of youth and experience, are obvious favourites to win the group.
They’ve qualified for the last 5 World Cups, having last failed for the 1998 World Cup. In contrast, Ireland have not qualified for a World Cup since 2002.
Ireland have faced Portugal a total of 13 times, losing 7 and winning 4 times. Their most recent fixture was an international friendly, a game which ended up in a 5-1 Portuguese victory.
Unlike Ireland, Portugal have major international honours to their name. Perhaps most famously, they won the 2016 European Championships after defeating France in extra time. They also won the inaugural UEFA Nations League in 2019.
Cristiano Ronaldo will be hoping to become international football’s highest ever goalscorer by the end of the campaign. He currently sits on 102 goals, just 7 goals behind current top goalscorer, Ali Daei.
Portugal have quality all over the pitch, meaning Ireland will have to be at their very best to claim any kind of result.
Key players: Cristiano Ronaldo, Bruno Fernandes, João Félix.
Despite losing to Scotland in their European Championship play-off game, Serbia are a quality side. They possess players of particular high quality in the midfield and forward areas.
They’ve been involved in 3 World Cup qualifying campaigns as Serbia – having previously competed under Yugoslavia and Serbia & Montenegro – and have qualified from 2 of those. They have, however, not made it past the group stage as of yet.
Ireland have faced Serbia 5 times, not winning a single match. Their most recent meeting came in the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign, where both teams were drawn in the same group. One fixture finished in a Serbia win while the other finished as a 2-2 draw. Serbia topped the group while Ireland qualified for the play-offs, but failed to qualify for the tournament.
Although not as fearsome as Portugal, Serbia should provide a stern test for Ireland. The fixtures against Serbia are crucial for Ireland. Whoever comes out on top will have a very good chance of making the play-offs – assuming Portugal tops the group.
Key players: Sergej Milinković-Savić, Aleksandar Mitrović, Dušan Tadić
Although not traditionally a country known for it’s football, Luxembourg have put together a decent team in recent years. They *might not* qualify for major tournaments any time soon, but they are definitely building towards something promising.
Ireland have faced Luxembourg 5 times, winning all of those fixtures. However, the last match between the two sides came in 1987 and Luxembourg are an improved, more professional side since then.
Luxembourg have competed in every World Cup qualifying campaign since 1934, but have failed to qualify from the group stages as yet.
They were promoted from Nations League group D in 2019 and very nearly achieved the same feat this year as they finished finished 2nd in their League C group – which also included Azerbaijan.
Luxembourg could very well be the dark horse in this group, Ireland will have to do a professional job on the underdogs. Complacency could prove an issue going into this fixture.
Key players: Gerson Rodrigues, Vincent Thill, Laurent Jans.
Like Luxembourg, Azerbaijan’s national team has been steadily improving for years. Much of the progression is due to the growth of their domestic league. Qarabağ, in particular, have vastly increased their reputation in recent years due to their involvement in the UEFA Europa League. In fact, they’ve qualified for the group stages every year since 2014.
Unlike the other teams in the group, Ireland have never faced Azerbaijan before. They have, however, faced the USSR – which they were part of – on 8 occasions. Ireland won 3 of those matches, while the USSR won 4.
Azerbaijan have never qualified for the World Cup as an independent country, having entered every campaign since 1998.
As mentioned before, they were in the same Nations League group as fellow group members, Luxembourg, this year. Luxembourg were victorious on one occasion while the other match between the two finished as a stalemate.
Realistically, Azerbaijan should finish bottom of the group. That is not, however, guaranteed. Ireland will have to be at their best to ensure a victory.
Key players: Ali Ghorbani, Maksim Medvedev, Gara Garayev.