One of the most memorable things about Euro 2016 was a number of times Ireland supporters in France were caught on camera enjoying the craic, doing things like fixing cars, and being one of the friendliest groups of fans.
There’s no doubt that the Irish are some of the most adored fans in the world, and many other nations would love to see them back again in the next major tournament. But what are the chances of the Boys in Green making it to the World Cup in Russia next year?
The Republic of Ireland have only appeared in the World Cup on three occasions, with the last showing in 2002 when they famously made it to the round of 16. But as it stands, Martin O’Neill’s side have a strong chance of making it to the big stage for the fourth time. After six matches played, the team that were knocked out of the Euros by France in the last 16 are level with Serbia on 12 points at the top of their qualifying group. Austria and Wales are dangerously close behind Ireland, though, on eight points apiece.
When the draw for the qualifying group was called, not many people gave Ireland a chance of getting through it, but now their destiny is in their own hands – if they win the next four matches they should qualify. The side led by Everton right-back Seamus Coleman are at 37/20 in the World Cup qualification odds to win Group D as of late July, while Austria are now long shots at 6/1. As little as six points in the four remaining fixtures could ensure a top-two finish, but only the best eight runners-up qualify from the nine groups. In the coming matches against Georgia and Serbia in September, and Moldova and Wales in October, O’Neill’s men need to look to improve their goal difference, as the tussle for top spots will be fiercely contested.
Ireland desperately need someone to step into the shoes of all-time top scorer Robbie Keane, who managed to put away a sensational 68 goals for his country in 146 appearances. Some would say that Shane Long is the obvious candidate for the role, but if the 30-year-old fails to pin down a regular starting role at Southampton then O’Neill will look to other options. As it stands, Charlie Austin and Manolo Gabbiadini appear to be ahead of the Gortnahoe-born striker in the pecking order at St Mary’s Stadium.
There is a possibility that Jonathan Walters could emerge as the number one striking choice, and the 33-year-old recently rescued a vital draw for Ireland in their last qualifier against Austria. The former Stoke City player signed for Burnley this summer, and looks to be firmly in Sean Dyche’s plans for the season ahead. With a combination of regular starts and goals at Turf Moor, O’Neill will find the man with 49 caps for Ireland hard to ignore in the games to come.
After an impressive showing at Euro 2016, Ireland have a real chance to continue this incredible run into the World Cup in 2018. They just need to keep focused, and find a goal scorer to replace the retired Keane.