Northern Ireland on the up and back in top 40 of FIFA rankings
It's official - Northern Ireland are moving up in the world. The FIFA world rankings are often dismissed and ridiculed but there's no doubt the latest statistics make pretty reading for the Green and White Army.
Michael O'Neill's men have surged from 44th to 37th position in the standings, a scenario that a few years ago seemed as likely as a Top Gear programme without Jeremy Clarkson.
But strange things happen and Northern Ireland fans are now quietly confident of dusting off their passports and heading to France next summer for the Euro 2016 finals.
Given our painful and unpredictable history since the glory days of the 1980s and two World Cup adventures, our feet are likely to remain on the ground but if this steady progress continues Northern Ireland could inch closer to their highest ever all-time ranking of 27th which they occupied in August, 2007 and from April to June 2009.
Their lowest ranking was 129th which they plummeted to in September 2012, seven months into O'Neill's reign, yet it was a hangover from disappointing results under previous manager Nigel Worthington.
Former Shamrock Rovers boss O'Neill is masterminding miracles in this Euro 2016 qualifying campaign, steering Northern Ireland in the right direction.
In October last year, Northern Ireland shot up 28 places to 43rd position after qualifying wins over the Faroe Islands and Greece.
No longer are Northern Ireland viewed as international whipping boys and the rankings now reflect that.
Their last outing, a scoreless draw with Romania, was also applauded as their opponents are ranked eighth in the world.
Northern Ireland's home draw against the Group F leaders in June left them a point behind the Romanians but still in the second spot which would book them an automatic place in next year's finals.
O'Neill's ability to generate electric performances from striker Kyle Lafferty has helped blow away the storm clouds.
Lafferty's transformation on the international stage is a tribute to O'Neill's incredible man-management skills.
After the draw with Romania, Lafferty (pictured) stated: "Michael has got us in the right mindset now.
"We're not a team who will beat the top dogs and then lose against the lower teams anymore.
"We will go out there with the same mindset and determination.
"We know how close we are.
"All the lads are itching to play those games. We just wish they were next week."
Other rankings in Northern Ireland's Euro 2016 qualifying group (F) are Romania (8th), Hungary (31st), Greece (44th), Faroe Islands (74th) and Finland (90th).
Northern Ireland's improved form has already been rewarded as O'Neill's side were confirmed as third ranking seeds for the 2018 World Cup.
The preliminary draw for the 2018 World Cup, which is being hosted by Russia, takes place in St Petersburg on July 25 at 5pm.
Fifa have confirmed the 52 European countries will be split into seven groups of six teams and two groups of five.
The teams Northern Ireland will definitely avoid are Albania, Greece, Hungary, Poland, Scotland, Serbia, Sweden and Ukraine.
Republic of Ireland, ranked 52 in the world, will be in the pot of fourth seeds with Bulgaria, Estonia, Faroe Islands, Israel, Montenegro, Norway, Slovenia and Turkey.
The winners of each group will qualify for Russia 2018, while the eight best group runners-up will take part in a play-off in November 2017.
Wales secured a place in Pot One, a reflection of the remarkable transformation of fortunes which has seen them enter the top 10 for the first time in their history - and they are now just one place below England.
Chris Coleman's side climbed 12 places from 22nd to 10th in the July rankings after beating Belgium last month to move to the brink of qualification for the European Championships next summer.
Wales are three points clear at the top of Group B with four games remaining as they bid to reach their first major finals since 1958.
Ranked a lowly 117th in August 2011, they have enjoyed a dramatic rise ever since and now stand above France, Italy and Spain as well as newly-crowned Copa America champions Chile.
Wales manager Coleman said the rise in the rankings reflected the work of those both on and off the pitch in the national set-up.
"It's fantastic for the team's efforts to be recognised along with those who have played an important role off the pitch, from the backroom staff to our brilliant fans," Coleman said.
"However, our focus absolutely remains on qualification for Euro 2016.
"That will be the measurement of success."
England have jumped six places to ninth after their Euro 2016 qualifying victory in Slovenia last month but Scotland are down one to 29.
Argentina's consolation for losing the Copa America final last weekend is regaining top spot from world champions Germany, who drop to second, while Belgium slip to third.
Northern Ireland moving up rankings
The FIFA World Ranking system was most recently revamped after the 2006 World Cup, with the first edition of the new series of rankings issued in July, 2006. The most significant change is that the rankings are now based on results over the previous four years instead of the previous eight years.
The change is perceived to respond to criticisms that the FIFA World Rankings, based upon the previous calculation method in use from January 1999 to June 2006, did not effectively reflect the relative strengths of the national teams.
Current top 20: 1 Argentina (3) 2 Germany (1) 3 Belgium (2) 4 Colombia (4) 5 Holland (6) 6 Brazil (5) 7 Portugal (7) 8 Romania (12) 9 England (15) 10 Wales (22) 11 Chile (19) 12 Spain (10) 13 Uruguay (8) 14 Croatia (18) 15 (tied) Slovakia (17), Austria (20) 17 Italy (13) 18 Switzerland (11) 19 Algeria (21) 20 Czech Republic (16).
Selected others: 29 Scotland (28); 37 Northern Ireland (44); 52 Republic of Ireland (60).
Other rankings in Northern Ireland’s Euro 2016 qualifying group (F): Romania (8th), Hungary (31st), Greece (44th), Faroe Islands (74th) and Finland (90th).