March 1, 2021, 19:38

World Cup play-offs explained: Could Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland be involved?

World Cup play-offs explained: Could Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland be involved?

Northern Ireland are a step closer to reaching consecutive major tournaments for the first time after their 2-0 World Cup qualifying victory over Czech Republic on Monday.

Michael O’Neill’s men are guaranteed second spot in Group C and are well placed to seal a play-off berth as they bid to reach the Russia finals.

England’s victory over Slovakia means they are close to qualifying as group winners but Wales, Scotland and the Republic of Ireland still have work to do and could yet be involved in a play-off scrap.

Here we explain the format and take a closer look at each country’s chances…

How do the play-offs work?

After the group stage concludes on October 10, eight runners-up will be drawn into four pairings, with two-legged play-off ties set for November 9-11 and 12-14, 2017.

The away goals rule will be used to determine a winner of the ties if scores are level after the second leg – whether after 90 minutes or extra time – and four play-off winners will advance to Russia 2018.

But only eight of the nine teams who finish second are eligible for a play-off spot – meaning one team with the least points will miss out.

Results gained against the bottom-ranked sides in each group do not count in the final play-off standings and while Northern Ireland are in a healthy position as it stands, Bosnia are in danger.

World Cup Play-off table – European Qualifiers (05/09/17) P W D L Pts GD 1 Portugal 6 5 0 1 15 +18 2 N Ireland 6 4 1 1 13 +7 3 Slovenia 7 4 0 3 12 +6 4 Ukraine 6 3 2 1 11 +3 5 Denmark 6 3 1 2 10 +6 6 Sweden 6 3 1 2 10 +3 7 Italy 5 3 1 1 10 +2 8 Rep of Ireland 6 2 4 0 10 +2 9 Bosnia 6 2 2 2 8 +2 Are Northern Ireland guaranteed a place?

Either Northern Ireland or Germany will reach next summer’s tournament as Group C winners, although the world champions remain firmly in the driving seat.

There is an outside chance Northern Ireland could finish top, and automatically qualify, but they would have to beat Germany and Norway in their remaining two qualifiers and hope Azerbaijan beat Joachim Low’s side too.

As such, the play-offs look to be Northern Ireland’s best route to a first World Cup appearance since 1986.

Based on current standings, O’Neill’s men possess the second best points tally and are all-but nailed on to feature in the play-offs.

What about Scotland?

Consecutive World Cup qualifying victories over Lithuania and Malta, coupled with England’s victory over Slovakia, has left Scotland with a fighting chance of reaching the finals for the first time in 20 years.

For Gordon Strachan’s men it’s simple; win the two remaining qualifiers at home to Slovakia and away to Slovenia and the Scots are guaranteed second spot in Group F.

As things stand that looks to be enough to secure a spot in the play-offs, with the two ‘victories’ leaving Scotland with a hypothetical tally of 14, after the points gained against whipping boys Malta have been removed.

Can Wales avoid play-offs?

Wales still harbour aspirations of winning Group D and automatically qualifying for Russia 2018.

Moldova vs Wales

September 5, 2017, 7:40pm

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Victories against Moldova, Georgia and Republic of Ireland in their final three games would see them end qualifying with 20 points and in a strong position to capitalise on any slip-up leaders Serbia make.

If Wales fail to finish top they could earn a play-off spot by finishing second, although, given the even nature of the group, this is not guaranteed.

Chris Coleman’s men have drawn five qualifiers so far, something which could come back to bite Wales once their points against the bottom-ranked side in the group are removed in the final play-off table.

How about the Republic of Ireland?

Reaching the World Cup as group winners is still within the Republic of Ireland’s grasp. However, a daunting task lies ahead if this is to be achieved, with fixtures at home to Serbia and Moldova and away to Wales remaining.

Rep Ire vs Serbia

September 5, 2017, 7:40pm

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Given the difficulty of their run-in, ending qualification in the play-offs is probably a more feasible option for Martin O’Neill’s men.

But, as the play-off table illustrates, Ireland would be in real danger of finishing as Group D runners-up but failing to make the cut in the play-offs.

A culmination of draws, combined with the loss of potentially six points from their games with Moldova, would leave Ireland perilously close to the dreaded ninth runners-up spot, and waiting for that first World Cup appearance since 2002.


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