Just to give you an idea as to how absurdly complex the World Cup qualifying situation is for Ireland, virtually nobody has made the old gag that we 'need to get abacuses (abacai) out'.
Few rudimentary objects are as grossly overstated as the abacus is by football commentators, but we haven't heard it anywhere in the build-up to the crescendo to Ireland's World Cup qualifying campaign. This shit is so complex, not even the abacus can handle it. But fear not, here is the simplest explanation we can muster. (We've guaranteed so as we've commissioned a deeply simple man to write it).
So how do we qualify for the World Cup?
Two paths are going to diverge on the Road to Russia, and we need to take one of them. The first route is to top the group and get there automatically. This is virtually out of the question, however: Ireland sit five points behind leaders Serbia, so to top the group we need to beat Moldova and Wales and hope that Serbia lose both of their games (away to Austria and at home to The Pesky Georgians). If Serbia pick up a point, and end up level with us they would still finish top: they have a far superior goal difference.
The most realistic scenario is via a play-off. To do so, we need to finish second in the group, but we also need to be among the eight best-ranked second-placed finishers. There are nine qualifying groups but only eight playoff spots, meaning the second-placed side with the lowest number of points will miss out on a two-legged tie for the finals.
To avoid teams profiting from drawing a true minnow like Gibraltar (they of the spectacular own goal-scoring 'keeper at the Aviva) UEFA knock off points and goals picked up against the bottom-placed side when ranking the best runners-up.
That leaves us in an awkward spot, relying on results elsewhere.
How are we currently ranked among second-placed sides?
Well, there's the small matter of currently sitting third in our group. But Wales - who sit above us - are ranked bottom of that particular table.
Here is that table as it currently stands:
So...what do Ireland need to do to qualify for the World Cup?
Well, first of all we need to finish second in the group and above the Welsh, so we need to beat Moldova at home and a Bale-less Wales in Cardiff.
That would put us on the table above, with a total of 13 points. (19 in the group, minus the six for rolling ova' Moldova).
Therefore, we could technically catch all the groups above us bar Group B, featuring Portugal. Some of these are extremely remote possibilities, so let's start rattling through the combination of results in each group we would need to catch that second-placed side. We'll start with the more realistic scenarios...
Group H - Bosnia and Herzegovina or Greece
So if Ireland are to appear on that table with 13 points, we need to keep the runner-up in Group H to 12 points. Bosnia are the incumbents, with 8 points (when results against bottom-placed Gibraltar are discounted). This means we need them to pick up no more than four points in their final games against already-qualified Belgium and not-bottom-but-still-rubbish Estonia.
At the same time, we need to make sure that Greece don't jump into second place while the Bosnians are dropping two points. Greece face Cyprus away and Gibraltar at home. We need Greece to drop at least two points across these games. Two wins would put them level on points with us, but their already-superior goal difference will get even better against Gibraltar, so the realistic option here is that the Cypriots do us a favour and take a couple of points off them.
Conclusion: If we are to qualify ahead of the Group H runners-up, we need Bosnia to pick up no more than four points against Belgium and Estonia and we need Greece to pick up no more than four points against Cyprus and Gibraltar.
Key Games To Watch:
Saturday October 7th: Bosnia V Belgium, Cyprus V Greece
Group F - Slovakia, Slovenia, or Scotland
It's officially time to hope that England run away with the group, as we need all of the sides below them to drop points. Incumbents Slovakia are away to Scotland and then at home to Malta, meaning realistically we need them to lose points at Hampden. A draw would leave them level on points with Ireland with a superior goal difference, so ideally we need Scotland to beat them.
From there, we need Scotland and Slovenia to drop points. Ideally, both would draw against each other on the final day, but were that not to materialise, we need Slovenia to fail to win against England but to follow that up by winning at home to Scotland.
Conclusion: If we are going to sneak in ahead of the runners-up in this group, we need Scotland to beat Slovakia and then either Slovenia and Scotland to draw or Slovenia to lose/draw against England and then beat Scotland.
Key Games To Watch:
Thursday October 5th: England V Slovenia, Scotland V Slovakia
Sunday October 8th: Slovenia V Scotland
They are the most straightforward scenarios. There are a couple of others, hinging on goal difference...
Group E - Poland, Montenegro, or Denmark
Montenegro are the second-placed incumbents, level on points with third-placed Denmark and three points behind leaders Poland. The best jumping off point here is to hope the group winners run away with things, so let's start by hoping that Poland beat both Armenia and Montenegro.
If they go clear at the top, that means we only have to worry about Montenegro or Denmark. Given that both of those play each other tomorrow night, we would be better off if Montenegro had the decency to beat Denmark and then get battered by Poland. That would mean that Montenegro would rank level with Ireland on 13 points, but their current goal difference is plus-eleven, eight better than Ireland's. They would need to edge victory against the Danes and then suffer an almighty hammering against the Poles.
And added to that, we need Denmark to drop points at home to Romania on the final day, to avoid them edging Ireland on goal difference in the playoff rankings.
Conclusion: If we are to qualify ahead of the Group E runners-up, we need Poland to win both of their games while dealing a massive blow to Montenegro's goal difference. Added to that, we need Montenegro to beat Denmark and lose heavily to Poland and we need Denmark to follow defeat to Montenegro with either a draw or a defeat to Romania.
Key Matches To Watch:
Doesn't matter.If we're worried about this, we're fucked.
Group C - Northern Ireland
If Northern Ireland collapse in spectacular fashion, then it is possible that we sneak in ahead of them. But it would have to be an almighty collapse. They would need to lose both of their remaining games - at home to Germany and away to misfiring Norway - while also shipping enough to blow their current six-goal differential over Ireland. Unlikely, given that they have conceded just two goals across the whole of qualifying thus far. Also, Ireland can only improve their goal difference against Wales, given that the Moldova results are discounted.
Conclusion: If Northern Ireland lose both of their games along with their six-goal differential advantage over Ireland, then we will sneak in ahead of them.
So there we have it, that's what Ireland need to do to qualify for the World Cup. In terms of other groups helping us out, our best bets are Groups H and F, meaning we will spend various points of this week on the Belgium, Cyprus, England, and Scotland bandwagons.
And who might we draw in the playoffs?
Steady on. Check back here on Tuesday morning for that. Hopefully.