Here's exactly how Ireland can achieve the points total for automatic qualification
Ireland are in an excellent position to qualify for their first World Cup since 2002.
After last month's excellent 1-0 victory against Austria in Vienna, the boys in green are sitting pretty at the top of Group D. Ireland are two points ahead of second placed Serbia, who scored a late equaliser through Alexandar Mitrovic, to deny third placed Wales all three points.
Group D looks very nice from an Irish perspective with four rounds of games played pic.twitter.com/dwup0Ytx2N
— RTÉ Soccer (@RTEsoccer) November 12, 2016
Before getting in to the often difficult and arduous task of qualifying permutations, it would be wise to remind ourselves of the qualification criteria for Russia 2018.
The main difference between this qualification campaign and that of the recent European Championships is that there is no playoff spot for a team who finishes third in their group.
- There are nine groups containing six teams each
- The nine group winners will qualify automatically for Russia 2018
- The eight best runners-up will advance to a playoff tie.
It has been 26 years since Ireland have automatically qualified for a major tournament. Considering Ireland's excellent start to the group, this is a great opportunity to target a first placed finish.
To make this task as simple as possible, we will set Ireland a points tally which will most likely lead to qualification for Russia 2018.
We have looked at the last three qualifying campaigns (Euro 2016, World Cup 2014 and Euro 2012) to calculate the average points required to achieve a first and second place finish.
- The average points required to finish first in a qualification group is 24 points.
- The average points required to finish second in a qualification group 19 points.
As we have seen already from the latest group table, Ireland are leading the way in Group D with 10 points after four games.
Ireland have six remaining fixtures in their quest to reach Russia in 2018. Of course, there are multiple different scenarios which can play out but for simplicity we are going to assume that Ireland will obtain maximum points in the ties against Georgia and Moldova. Yes, Georgia away will be a tricky tie, but we expect that the Georgians' motivation for qualification will have dwindled by the time next September comes around.
This would make the fixture a bit easier than it would be under normal circumstances.
If Ireland beat Georgia and Moldova:
- They'll have secured 16 points.
- They'd need just thee more to hit the average tally for second place.
- They'd need just eight more (from four games) to hit the average tally for first place.
The remaining fixtures - after Georgia and Moldova have been taken out of the equation - are Wales at home, Austria at home, Serbia at home and Wales away.
Three out of four games against opposition competing for a qualification spot will be played in the Aviva Stadium. Ireland couldn't ask for a better chance to achieve something special.
The Welsh game at home is going to be difficult, there is no doubt about that. Chris Coleman's men will arrive at the Aviva Stadium knowing that three points are necessary in keeping their slim qualification chances alive. This, in addition to the fact that this is a derby of sorts, leads us to the conclusion that a draw is the most likely result here.
Austria at home
Our next game proceeding the Welsh will be Austria at home next June. Austria at this stage will be clinging on with their finger nails to remain within a shout of qualification. We expect them to come into this clash with a victory over Moldova under their belts.
However, their performances since the beginning of the campaign (a victory over Georgia and a draw with Wales) do not lead us to the conclusion they will get any kind of result against Martin O'Neill's men.
We are confident that Ireland will achieve three points here.
- A draw with Wales and a win over Austria (both at home) bump Ireland to 20 points.
The most crucial game will then be Ireland's home tie with Serbia in September. The winner of this will likely finish top of the group as the two teams could well be on the same points when they face each other. With a raucous home support behind Ireland, we think Ireland can get the win here with confidence they will have gained of achieving a point in Belgrade.
The Promised Land
- Beating Moldova after Serbia could leave Ireland with 23 points going into their final game.
- One point shy of achieving automatic qualification (or the average total for it).
Wales will be out of the running for qualification at this stage but we can guarantee that they will want to spoil the Irish party. We expect an incredibly competitive match with very little to separate both sides. A point apiece looks the most likely result here.
24 points and automatic qualification for Russia 2018.