Four games. 10 points. Top of a difficult, but winnable group. Ireland have been here before.
James McClean’s winner in Austria in November 2016 moved Martin O’Neill’s Ireland onto 10 points after their opening four games and put them in a strong position to qualify for last year’s World Cup.
With Wales and Serbia seemingly content to draw every other game, Ireland were in the driving seat. It fell apart, however, as a plethora of draws saw Ireland’s World Cup hopes come crashing down.
Looking ahead to Ireland’s last four qualifying games, here’s what we think The Boys in Green need to do if they are to avoid repeating their mistakes and book their place in Euro 2020.
Win their home games
Ireland had a phenomenal record on the road during the World Cup qualifiers. Seven points from a possible nine in Austria, Wales and Serbia is a genuinely impressive return and it really should have been the foundations for topping the group. Even an away draw in Copenhagen in the play-offs was a commendable result, and one that gave Ireland real hope of qualifying for Russia.
Their home form, however, was diabolical. Two points from nine against the same teams was simply not good enough. They actually managed to return a worse result at home to each of their qualifying rivals than they did away, drawing with Serbia away and losing at home, while beating both Wales and Austria away and drawing with them at home. That’s not to mention the 5-1 hammering at the hands of Denmark in the play-offs.
If Ireland are to go one better than their last qualifying campaign, they need to beat at least one of Denmark or Switzerland at the Aviva.
They showed plenty of attacking intent in last Friday’s draw with Denmark, and there is enough evidence to suggest that they can go on the front foot at home to them. We’ll just ignore their struggles with a dogged Gibraltar on Monday, shall we?
Switzerland are one of the weaker first seeds Ireland could have hoped to get as well, and a confident performance at home to the Swiss could bear fruit. In an ideal world, Ireland would beat both and wrap up qualification with a neat little bow.
This is Ireland we’re talking about though, and obviously, that won’t happen. We’ll settle for four points at home to our two rivals.
Hope Switzerland and Denmark draw
If Ireland do indeed manage to beat one of Denmark or Switzerland at home, they then will surely hope that they draw with each other.
If, for instance, Ireland were to beat Denmark in the Aviva and Denmark were to draw with Switzerland in Copenhagen, Ireland would be virtually assured of a place in next year’s finals. In that case, Denmark would have dropped five points against Ireland and a further four points against Switzerland. Even if Ireland were to lose home and away to the Swiss, they would only have dropped eight points.
Failing a draw, the next best thing Ireland could hope for would be for the team they hypothetically managed to beat to be beaten again.
Again, using the example of Denmark, a defeat at the hands of both Switzerland and Ireland would make it virtually impossible for Denmark to qualify for Euro 2020 at the expense of Ireland.
Since we do not care one jot about topping the group, it wouldn’t matter if Switzerland were to pull away from Ireland in second.
Beat Georgia away
The importance of this game can’t be stressed enough. Georgia have played a decisive role in Ireland’s last two qualifying campaigns. Last time out, the Georgian’s draw with Wales was enough to allow Ireland sneak into the play-off spots, while their draw with Ireland was enough to prevent them from topping the group ahead of Serbia.
In 2015, their win over Scotland paved the way for Ireland to take third place and make the play-offs for Euro 2016 which they ultimately prevailed in.
2017’s draw aside, Ireland have been incredibly lucky when taking on the Georgians away from home and have scarcely deserved any of their victories. 2014’s last gasp winner came courtesy of Aiden McGeady’s moment of sheer class.
It proved to be the last thing of any relevance that McGeady managed for his country. In 2008, conflict in Georgia saw the game controversially moved to Germany. Ireland again won out 2-1 in Giovanni Trapattoni’s first competitive games as manager.
Luck will only take you so far, however, and Mick McCarthy’s men will need to produce a similar performance to the one they produced in March.
They will have to assertive and aggressive, taking the game to Georgia at every possible moment. Of all the crucial moments lying ahead, winning in Tbilisi is arguably the most significant.