The picture is starting to become clear in Group D of the Euro 2020 qualifiers.
While many Irish fans were once again cursing the Danes after they snatched victory against Switzerland on Saturday, Ireland’s task is now at least straightforward.
The Boys in Green find themselves in an unusual position where draws are exactly the same as defeats in their last two group games and where winning either game will be enough for them to progress.
Regardless of whether Ireland lose or draw with Switzerland on Tuesday, they will have to beat Denmark at home in November in order to qualify, making Tuesday’s game in Geneva essentially a free hit for Mick McCarthy’s men.
There is no result or series of results that can fatally damage Ireland’s campaign before their clash with Denmark and they are guaranteed to go into that game knowing that three points will be enough to send them through on the head-to-head rule.
However, Ireland can also seal their progress to next summer’s competition with a win in Switzerland on Tuesday. The Swiss are currently four points behind Ireland with three games remaining. Should Ireland win, that deficit will stretch to an insurmountable seven points with two games to play.
Lose on Tuesday and Ireland know that they will get a second chance to qualify if they can beat Denmark.
If Ireland were to draw with Switzerland, they would likely have to beat Denmark at home as well given that it is likely that the Swiss will beat Georgia at home and Gibraltar away.
Ireland also have the fallback of being virtually guaranteed of making a Nations League play-off, although explaining how is impossible to do in less than 800 words. Or without an abacus, so you’ll have to trust us on this one.
The message, therefore, is clear for Mick McCarthy; throw the shackles off on Tuesday and abandon the conservative approach.
McCarthy’s pragmatic approach has been well founded so far in qualifying given Ireland’s limitations up front, but now it is time to throw caution to the wind for one game at least.
This is not a call for Ireland to go out and try to outplay Switzerland since doing so would likely result in a massacre, rather it is calling for McCarthy to pick players capable of inflicting the maximum amount of damage from the limited amount of ball Ireland will have.
Switzerland will still dominate the ball and Ireland will no doubt still find themselves having to defend for long periods, but why not pick the players that get the country excited.
Instead of handing Glenn Whelan his 89th cap in an Ireland jersey, why not give Josh Cullen a starting berth in a competitive match for the first time. Jack Byrne has surely also thrown his hand up for selection following impressive performances for both club and country.
Most importantly, however, McCarthy needs to do away with James McClean on Tuesday night.
The Stoke winger is a poor man’s Antonio Valencia and his passion doesn’t make up for his inability to beat a defender, his inability to cross the ball or his inability to use his weaker right foot.
In fact, his passion doesn’t really make up for anything.
It’s easy to see why he has been constantly selected given that he offers valuable protection to Ireland’s full-backs. Yet, if McCarthy is to abandon his rigid structure, then McClean has to be the first to make way.
Aaron Connolly showed more in 12 minutes than McClean has shown in six qualifying games this year and he should start on Tuesday night. He has proved for the under-21s that he is comfortable operating on the left wing, a position that has almost been exclusively McClean’s under McCarthy.
With Connolly and Callum Robinson operating on the flanks, Ireland at least have some pace to make the Swiss defence think twice about pressing high and suffocating the Irish midfield. There is genuinely no point in playing for a draw as Ireland did, understandably, in Copenhagen and there will have to be stages where Ireland force the issue.
Having the likes of Connolly in their ranks means that they at least have some players capable of inflicting damage on the scoreboard rather than someone who is more dangerous to supporters in the stands.
This fixture is a shot-to-nothing. Ireland would be as well treating it as such.