Friday 24 November 2017

Trap will need at least one win

Robbie Butler and John Eakins

Since the European Championships expanded to 16 teams in 1996, the average number of points accumulated by group winners has been 7.56. Second-placed teams have, on average, collected just shy of five points (4.875 to be exact).

Only once has a team accumulated five points and not qualified. Italy have the misfortune of holding this record and can blame Bulgaria (for losing all their group games) and a Scandinavian alliance of Sweden and Denmark, who conveniently played out a 2-2 draw in their final group game, having known before the game that such a result would ensure qualification for both to the knockout stages.

An alternative way of looking at this question is to identify all the possible outcomes of a four-team group and calculate the number of times a given number of points guarantees qualification. Collectively, the teams in Group C could end up with a minimum of 12 points (all matches end in draws) or a maximum of 18 points (all matches end in wins with one team winning three, the next winning two, the next winning one and the final team winning none) between them. A little bit of number crunching indicates there are an incredible 729 possible outcomes in total for a four-team, round-robin group.

Statistically, teams have exactly the same chance of qualifying by amassing either five points or six. Either outcome guarantees qualification 96.30% of the time, with qualification the remaining 3.70% of the time decided by UEFA rules (head-to-head record, goal difference, etc).

Qualification gets increasingly less likely when we move to fewer than five points. Managing to gather just four would guarantee qualification little over a quarter of the time (27.78%). With four points, there is a greater chance (54.32%) of two (or more) teams vying for qualification being tied on the same points. Moreover, elimination is possible with four points 17.90% of the time.

Managing to win just three points in the group makes qualification very difficult. Guaranteed qualification to the next phase will occur just 3.70% of the time with a further 13.89% chance of qualification by having a better record than a team with the same points. Elimination occurs in more than four out of five cases.

Qualification is possible with two points but only in situations where teams are level on points and qualify via UEFA rules. This occurs less than 4% of the time.

What the statistics suggest is that a win in one of our three games is a minimum requirement for qualification. A draw in one of the other games would then leave us with at least four points and in a reasonable position to qualify, but five points or more would be ideal. There are four ways the Irish squad can achieve this return. Win all our games, which is highly unlikely. Win two and draw one, which is improbable. Win two and lose one, which is possible but difficult. Lastly, win once and draw the other two. This probably represents our best chance of qualification. A loss in any game will potentially be a knockout blow.

Ireland must aim to avoid such a scenario in the opening game to get off to a good start. Otherwise this team will have to do the unthinkable and achieve something no other Irish team has done before -- win twice in the group stages of a major competition.

A final word of caution. As stated, Italy exited Euro 2004 with five points, an outcome that should occur less than 4% of the time. The Italian manager at Euro 2004 -- one Giovanni Trapattoni. Surely, he's due some luck.

Robbie Butler and John Eakins are based in UCC's Department of Economics

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