Well, here we are again. We’re coming toward the end of a qualification campaign for a major European tournament, and we still don’t know whether Ireland will be at the party when it starts in the summer of 2020.
We have every chance of being there, but equally, we have every chance of missing out. This is Ireland we’re talking about. Over the years, we’ve experienced every kind of heartbreak when it comes to reaching the final stage of a tournament since the glory days of USA 1994. At the back of our national psyche, we’re still not over the Thierry Henry handball farce that cost us a place at the 2010 World Cup.
Should we have more optimism this time around? After all, we’re top of qualification group D as things stand. All isn’t quite as it seems, though, and we wouldn’t bet on Irish progression just yet. As a gamble, it wouldn’t be a safe one. In fact, when we come to take a look at the possible permutations, there are almost as many as you’d find if you were playing slots casino. Until the reels have stopped spinning on a mobile slots game, you have no idea whether or not you’re a winner. Until the final qualifying fixtures have been played out, we have no idea whether Ireland will be winners, either. Only a fool would claim to be able to predict the outcome of a mobile slots game, and only a fool would say with any certainty that Ireland is home and dry yet, too.
Let’s look at the positives first. As we’ve said, Ireland are top of their group. They’re level on points with Denmark, one point ahead of Switzerland, and four points ahead of Georgia. Only Ireland, Denmark, and Switzerland can qualify. Ireland’s remaining game is at home to Denmark. Winning that game would give Ireland the best possible chance of progression. That’s our full summary of the positives – that’s all we’ve got. The reason for that is both Switzerland and Denmark have a game in hand on Ireland – and they’re games they should win.
Should Denmark beat Gibraltar (which is inevitable) before they meet Ireland, they’ll be three points ahead of us. Even beating them wouldn’t put us back on top of them, because they have a vastly superior goal difference to us. If we presume that Denmark beat Gibraltar, then the best Ireland can hope for is a second-place finish. Achieving that depends on more than just beating Denmark – which, given our home advantage, you’d like to believe is achievable. Even that second-place finish isn’t guaranteed, however, and that’s all because of Switzerland.
Switzerland’s two remaining qualification games are at home to Georgia, and away at Gibraltar. The odds and the form guides say that they’ll win both games. If they do, they’ll finish on seventeen points. Even if Ireland beat Denmark, Switzerland would finish top of the group. Denmark would stay in second place because of their goal difference. Ireland would sink to third, and from there, things become very interesting thanks to the way the playoffs system works this time around.
In the past, the best-performing third-placed teams would face off in the playoffs. For Euro 2020, that isn’t the case. Eligibility for the playoffs depends on where national teams finished at the end of last season’s Nations League games. Ireland, as you may remember, finished dead last in their group behind Wales and Denmark. As Denmark would already have qualified their position wouldn’t matter, so Ireland would be depending on the fortunes of Wales in order to determine whether they still stand a chance of reaching the Euro finals.
Wales, as it stands, are fourth in their group. If they stay there, they’ll be out of the running, and Ireland will be eligible for the playoff spot. Wales’ two final remaining qualifying fixtures are away at Azerbaijan, and then a crunch tie at home to Hungary. Assuming they beat Azerbaijan – which they should – their tie with Hungary will determine whether they qualify automatically, or finish third. That situation could still be complicated by third-placed Slovakia. For the record, Hungary finished second in their Nations League group behind Finland, who have qualification issues of their own. To cut a long story short, if Ireland finishes third, they’re relying on a long of other fixtures going their way if they’re to make it to the big dance.
Our best chance of qualifying, therefore, remains a first or second-place finish in our own group. We can almost certainly rule out first – that would involve Gibraltar taking points away from Denmark or Switzerland, and with the greatest of respect to Gibraltar, that’s incredibly unlikely to happen. We would, therefore, have to look to Georgia to do us a favor away in Switzerland. That’s still unlikely, but not impossible. Georgia is a team that is capable of troubling other sides, but shouldn’t beat them. Indeed, if Ireland doesn’t qualify, we can probably look back on the lackluster 0-0 draw we came away from Georgia with earlier in October as the reason why. Had we picked up two additional points there, a victory over Denmark would make things much harder for Switzerland in terms of catching us. Mick McCarthy’s statement that he was ‘happy’ with the single point we achieved from that fixture looks more questionable with each passing day.
As we said at the start of the article, betting on Irish qualification at this stage would be a fool’s errand. Because of that poor performance in Georgia, we’re now relying on other nations helping us out, or fixtures going our way in groups we’re not even involved in. We may yet even have cause to regret our performances in the Nations League over a year ago, and who’d have thought at the time that they might turn out to be important? All we can do at this stage is back the boys, hope for a win against the Danish, and cross our fingers that everything else falls into place.