What now for Northern Ireland? Play-off chances and seeding permutations for World Cup qualification
None of it is straightforward but we've tried to get our heads round the whole situation.
Northern Ireland are on a record run of victories and currently have the best defensive set-up the world has ever seen (no exaggeration). But the big question is will they make it to Russia? Hopefully this will help explain their chances.
Northern Ireland will finish in the top two but that doesn't actually guarantee a play-off spot. So let's have a look at what could happen next - will they make the play-offs and, crucially, will they be seeded?
1. How likely is it that Northern Ireland will make it to the play-offs?
In short, very. (But another point could be the key - keep reading.)
The longer version is an absolute head melter. But the trooper I am, I've tried to work it all out. Keep reading, then go take a much-needed lie down.
Results against the bottom team of each group will not count towards the play-off totals. So that means currently the race for play-off spots looks like this - with the points gained against basement teams discounted:
As you can see, Northern Ireland are currently sitting pretty.
How many more points do NI need to secure their play-off spot?
At the minute, Nothern Ireland still would need at least two points to rubber-stamp their place in the play-off stages. That could change when Bosnia and Herzegovina host Belgium on October 7 (I'll explain later). But for now, that's the score.
With two difficult fixtures (at home to Germany and away to Norway) to finish the campaign, two defeats is not totally beyond the realms of possibility. If that were to happen, there are three groups that could well still save the day for Our Wee Country.
Saved by Group H?
Currently, the most likely group to miss out on a play-off spot is Group H. Let me explain further.
Even if Northern Ireland were to lose both of those games, Bosnia and Herzegovina would need to win both of their remaining matches in order to leapfrog our boys by a point. Next up for B&H is a home game against league leaders Belgium.
Anything less than a B&H win there would be a massive boost for NI - but it wouldn't quite confirm a play-off place. That's because, should Greece win in Cyprus and follow it up with a highly likely three points at home to Gibraltar, they would steal second with an adjusted total of 13 points. Should they also overturn four goals in the GD column, they could get past NI (that's if we assume NI lose their last two games).
*This means another one point for Northern Ireland over their last two games could be crucial.*
Saved by Group D?
After Tuesday September 5's win for Serbia over Republic of Ireland, things are a little bit clearer here. Serbia should win the group barring monumental errors in their final games against Austria and Georgia.
That leaves Republic of Ireland and Wales battling for second. Currently, Wales are in second on 8 adjusted points. Republic of Ireland are already on 10 adjusted points with basement side Moldova still to play. And Wales should beat Georgia next to reach 11 adjusted points.
That means that all Northern Ireland need is a draw between Wales and the Republic of Ireland in the final group game and both would fall short of 13 adjusted points. OR Moldova's first win of the tournament could help take Republic of Ireland's adjusted points down by changing bottom spot and taking two adjusted points off RoI care of their draw with Georgia.
Saved by Group F?
So let's for a minute keep pretending the worst has happened in NI's last two games AND that B&H (or Greece) have managed to knock NI down a peg AND Wales or Republic of Ireland have made it to at least 13. Who is the next best hope?
Well that could come from the teams behind England in Group F. Slovakia currently hold second but just a point behind are Slovenia and Scotland. The Scots face both Slovakia and Slovenia in their last two games - two wins would take them to 14 adjusted points. But should the points be shared more evenly in those games, the runners-up could fall short of 13 points. Northern Ireland would require Scotland to beat Slovakia at home, then lose to Slovenia away (providing England beat the Slovenians at Wembley). That would leave Slovakia in second, but with just 12 points.
What about the rest?
We're really getting to worst case scenario now. So providing Group H, Group D and Group F have all surpassed NI's 13 points - and Michael O'Neill's men have lost their last two - they might be in diffs. Here's why (if it's too complicated - just take my word for it):
Group I: Iceland are now level with Northern Ireland on 13 adjusted points, as of September 5's win over Ukraine. They play challengers Turkey next and a draw would obviously take them above NI, should the Germans win at Windsor. Even a win for Turkey, which would keep Iceland on 13 with all of their qualifying fixtures played, wouldn't be great news as the Turks should beat Finland in the final game, which would take them to second on 14 adjusted points. A win for Turkey over Iceland and then Finland over Turkey is the ideal situation for NI.
Group G: Italy have now reached 13 adjusted points with September 5's win over Israel and it's fair to assume they're not done there, with their final two games against Macedonia and Albania. Let's not even debate that.
Group E: The play-off contenders Montenegro and Denmark have still to play each other. Let's just assume any team making it into second will end with at least 13 adjusted points. It's likely they will, with Denmark at home to Romania in the final game - that should bring the victory which would take them to 13 even if they lost to Montenegro.
Group A: Either France or more likely Sweden or Holland will finish second. And barring a slip up by either against one of the two bottom teams, coupled by a complimenting result in the final fixture between the two, they will also make it past Northern Ireland's 13 point total.
Group B: Current runners-up Portugal have already surpassed that 13 adjusted point mark.
2. How likely is it that Northern Ireland will be seeded in the play-offs?
Right let's unpack this bit now. If you can't be bothered with the details, read this:
The seedings will go on World Ranking places based on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking to be published on 16 October. So Northern Ireland need to, obviously, be above four other play-off teams in the list.
Group A: NI want the Netherlands to surpass Sweden. NI are above the Netherlands and could be above Sweden on the key date, but that's a closer call. Most Likely: UNSEEDED
Group B: Portugal or Switzerland will easily be seeded. No use. Most Likely: SEEDED
Group C: That's Northern Ireland. Most Likely: UNCLEAR
Group D: NI would be looking for the Republic of Ireland or Serbia to finish second as Wales are higher ranked. Most Likely: UNCLEAR
Group E: Montenegro and Denmark are both ranked lower than NI - so this group should work in their favour. Most Likely: UNSEEDED
Group F: NI want Slovenia or Scotland to finish as runners-up here - although NI could still leapfrog Slovakia in the rankings. Just one behind at the minute. Most Likely: UNCLEAR
Group G: Italy or Spain. Most Likely: SEEDED
Group H: Most Likely: MISSED PLAY-OFF PLACE
Group I: This looks like being either Turkey or Iceland. Northern Ireland are ahead of Turkey in the rankings and could also be above Iceland on October 16- - but that could go either way. Most Likely: UNSEEDED
Emmm.....so what does that mean??
Seeded will be Group B and Group G for sure. That leaves two places up for grabs. What NI need is one of Wales or Slovakia to miss out while keeping an eye on the rankings as Iceland and Sweden could both still snatch a seeded spot.
Conclusion in short
If I was a betting man, I'd go NI to make the play-offs with at least a point in Norway and they even have a chance of being seeded. We'll know after the updated World Rankings are published.
One more point could well be crucial.
Belfast Telegraph Digital