Belfast Telegraph

NI sitting pretty as fight for play-off places hots up

By Conor McLaughlin

The Republic of Ireland face a stiff task to make next summer's World Cup in Russia. Not only have they slipped behind Wales into third in the standings, but Group D is currently on course to miss out on a play-off spot altogether.

The runner-up with the lowest number of points across the nine groups will drop out of contention and, though England are poised to seal automatic qualification for the World Cup, Northern Ireland, the Republic, Wales and Scotland all have work to do.

Northern Ireland, who have already rubber-stamped a top two position in Group C, still need at least two points to be sure of a play-off berth but have every reason to be confident of involvement in November's decisive fixtures - even if they were to lose both of their remaining qualifiers against Germany and Norway.

The Republic must overcome Moldova at home next month and then secure something from their subsequent battle with Wales in Cardiff.

Six points is an obvious target but, should Chris Coleman's side slip up in a tricky trip to Georgia, a draw would be enough for the Republic to take second place in the group. It remains to be seen whether 17 points - minus the six pocketed against the basement side - would be sufficient for Martin O'Neill's men to climb into one of the eight play-off positions, however.

As things stand, Group D sits bottom of the pile thanks in no small part to the abundance of draws played out between a string of evenly-matched teams.

Both the Republic and Wales, who currently occupy the runners-up position, will be hoping that Bosnia-Herzegovina and Greece - each jostling in Group H - stutter in their final qualifying fixtures.

Another boost for the Republic could come in Group F, where a Scotland win against Slovakia and an English victory over Slovenia on October 5, combined with Scotland losing to the Slovenians a few days later, could open the door.

And, just to add to the confusion, the final set of games in Group H take place on the night after the Republic face Wales.

Therefore, O'Neill's men could have to wait for 24 hours to get absolute clarity on their situation even if they get the job done.

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