Thursday 19 September 2019

What chance do the home nations and Republic of Ireland have of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup?

How many of the five nations will contest the biggest trophy in football?

The countdown timer for the Russia World Cup 2018 in Moscow
The countdown timer for the Russia World Cup 2018 in Moscow

By Max McLean

With the World Cup’s European qualifiers nearing their conclusion, what chance do the home nations and the Republic of Ireland have of reaching Russia 2018?

The good news? They’re all still in contention. The bad news? They can’t all make it.

How the play-offs work

Wales manager Chris Coleman

England aside, Wales, Scotland, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland’s hopes all rely on the play-offs. Before rating their chances of making it that far, here’s how they work.

Runners-up from eight of the nine European qualifying groups will contest the play-offs in two-legged ties, with the four winners progressing to the World Cup. The runner-up with the lowest number of points will miss out on a play-off spot.

However, points earned against the bottom team in each group are subtracted when considering the points totals of second-placed teams, so some maths is required.

England – 9.5/10

Slovenia (h) Lithuania (a)

England's Harry Kane and Danny Welbeck celebrate a goal

Yes, England have just about got this one sewn up courtesy of another rather paradoxical undefeated yet unspectacular qualifying campaign that sees them five points clear of second place in Group F.

You know the drill by now – six wins, two draws, three goals conceded. England will perennially be destined to “come up against tougher challenges” at a later date.

For now, a draw could guarantee automatic qualification for Gareth Southgate’s side, and even if they somehow failed to secure top spot, they’d probably go through via a play-off.

Northern Ireland – 6/10

Germany (h) Norway (a)

Northern Ireland celebrate a goal during World Cup qualifying

Northern Ireland have almost certainly guaranteed a play-off spot in Group C, with an impressive five wins in a row securing second place.

Subtracting the six points they won against San Marino, Northern Ireland’s 13 points stands them in good stead against the rest of the current second-placed sides, so they will almost certainly not be the worst-placed runner-up of the nine groups.

So, it will probably all come down to who they find themselves up against in a play-off – from Portugal to Italy, Iceland to Slovakia, Northern Ireland could even face Wales…

Wales – 5.5/10

Georgia (a) Republic of Ireland (h)

The Wales team before a World Cup qualifier against Moldova

If you’d told Wales they’d be undefeated with two games of qualifying to go, they’d probably assume qualification was nigh.

However, five consecutive draws for Chris Coleman’s side have scuppered their hopes of automatic progression. Four points adrift of Serbia, Wales are in control of their own fate as far as a runner-up spot goes, but a place in the play-offs is far from a certainty.

With points against Moldova subtracted, Wales have the joint-fewest points of the nine current second-place sides – they’ve got work to do in two tricky ties against Georgia and Ireland, who could qualify at the expense of Wales.

Republic of Ireland – 4.5/10

Moldova (h) Wales (a)

Republic of Ireland's Shane Long during World Cup qualifying

The Republic sit one place and one point below Wales in Group D, but what chance do they have of making it to Russia?

Ireland might expect a win against Moldova at home, which would set up a deciding game against Wales on Monday. Two wins would leave them on 13 points after removing any points won against bottom side Moldova, a total that would give Martin O’Neill’s side a decent chance of a play-off spot.

Should they get that far, once again there are some difficult sides in the running – Ireland would do well to focus on winning against Moldova for now, and think about qualifying permutations later.

Scotland – 4/10

Slovakia (h) Slovenia (a)

Scotland's Matt Phillips reacts during World Cup qualifying

In a tricky group, Scotland have done well to put themselves in contention with Slovakia and Slovenia for a play-off place after taking 10 points from their last four games.

The three sides are separated by just one point in Group F, and Scotland play both Slovenia and Slovakia in their final two games, which gives them control over their destiny, albeit against two very tough opponents.

With Slovakia playing bottom side Malta in their final game, Scotland will probably have to win twice to be in contention for a play-off spot. Can they do it?

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