The 2-0 defeat to Italy for the Ireland U21s in Bari yesterday has made the task of qualifying for Euro 2021 more difficult, but certainly not impossible for the Boys in Green. The covid crisis in the Ireland senior squad ultimately hamstrung the Ireland U21s, with two players called up to Stephen Kenny's squad for today's match against Finland. It leaves Ireland in a rather complicated qualifying position. Jim Crawford's men need two wins next month, and they'll need a bit of help as well. Here's an in-depth explainer of what's at stake.
As it stands
Ireland currently sit second in Group 1, trailing Italy on goal difference. Iceland and Sweden are both a single point back. Ireland will play home to Iceland on November 12 and away to Luxembourg on November 17. First place Italy and third place Iceland each have three fixtures remaining. Italy have fixtures left against Iceland, Luxembourg, and Sweden, while Iceland play Italy at home and have trips to Dublin and Yerevan. Third place Sweden play Italy and Armenia. It's worth pointing out that Armenia and Luxembourg are level on three points, though its unlikely the Luxembourgers will finish fifth in the group considering their remaining ties against Italy and Ireland.
First place seems unlikely for Ireland, but second place is not guaranteed. For Ireland, the math is brutally simple. We must beat Iceland.
Should Ireland win that match, and the Luxembourg fixture, Ireland will, in the very least, find themselves vying for a qualifying spot amongst the best second place teams.
Beat Iceland - then what?
Last week, UEFA modified the rules of qualifying so that the five best second place teams would qualify for the tournament. There's a caveat to that however: results against the last place team in the group will be dumped. As it stands, Ireland find themselves as the fifth place team among the nine second place countries, separated from Belgium and Romania only on goal difference. Portugal and Austria trail Ireland with 12 points, with Scotland a point further back.
In the context of second place qualifying, Ireland's final qualifying fixture is essentially a friendly as the Luxembourgers are all but assured last place. Presuming we beat Iceland, there are still some maddening possibilities for Ireland.
The countries beneath Ireland
Even with a win over Iceland, Ireland can expect to be overtaken by at least one country. Portugal are one point behind Ireland, but have three fixtures remaining, playing Belarus, Cyprus and the Netherlands all at home in their three remaining fixtures. They need four points from three games to overtake Ireland so we can essentially consider them qualified.
Austria play away to Turkey and home to Andorra. These are the fifth and sixth places teams in their group so the result of only one of those matches (most likely Turkey away) will count towards their final total. Should Ireland win against Iceland, Austria will not be able to leapfrog us.
In Group 4, meanwhile, is complicated as hell. Scotland are away to Croatia and home to Greece in their final two qualifying fixtures, the third and fourth place teams in their group. Should Scotland win both games, they'll win the group, sending the Czechs into the second place draw. It gets a bit messy here as Croatia, who sit a point behind Scotland, could pip both Scotland and the Czechs should they defeat Scotland and then overcome Lithuania in their final fixture, which would also send the Czechs into the second place pool. The Czechs, for their part, have one fixture left, away to Greece. Group 4 is a live threat to Ireland.
The countries we're level with
Ireland, however, can overtake some of the countries its level with in the second place table. With a win over Iceland, Ireland will likely be in a position to overtake current second place qualifiers Poland, as the Poles have a sole game left against last place Latvia. Should Poland win, the result will not count towards their second place tally and they'll stay stuck on 14 points.
Similarly, Romania, who are ahead of Ireland only on goal difference in the second place table, have a single game left, at home to table toppers Denmark. Romania will need three points to assure they don't get overtaken.
Belgium, who sit level with Ireland, similarly face a tricky away tie versus Bosnia and Herzegovina in their last game. Should Belgium draw or lose that, they'll be in danger of losing out.
In summary, it's all in play for Ireland. We could finish as the second best second place side, we could finish as the seventh best second place side. We could finish fourth in our own qualifying group. Long story short, Ireland need to beat Iceland. Anything less than 3 points in Tallaght, and our qualifying dreams will be hanging on by a thread. After that, we'll have to track the results on the final days of qualifying to see if we'll reach Slovenia and Hungary.