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All you need to know about Ireland's 5 rivals for a 2018 World Cup spot

Wales, Serbia and other sides the Boys in Green will face over the coming months.

Wales (1st seeds)

Euro 2016 soccer tournament Source: Joe Giddens

Latest squad*: Goalkeepers - Wayne Hennessey (Crystal Palace), Danny Ward (Liverpool), Owain Fon Williams (Inverness); Defenders - Chris Gunter (Reading), James Chester (Aston Villa), Ashley Williams (Everton), James Collins (West Ham), Ben Davies (Tottenham), Jazz Richards (Cardiff), Neil Taylor (Swansea), Paul Dummett (Newcastle); Midfielders - Joe Allen (Stoke), Joe Ledley (Crystal Palace), Emyr Huws (Cardiff), Andy King (Leicester), David Edwards (Wolves), George Williams (Fulham), David Cotterill (Birmingham) Forwards - Gareth Bale (Real Madrid), Hal Robson-Kanu (unattached), Sam Vokes (Burnley), Simon Church (MK Dons), Tom Lawrence (Leicester).

*Aaron Ramsey is unavailable through injury

Key player: Gareth Bale - Unquestionably one of the world’s best players, Bale has scored 49 goals in 83 La Liga games and won two Champions League titles since joining Real Madrid. He also tends to be similarly influential when playing for his country, managing 22 goals in 61 appearances, including three goals at Euro 2016 this summer.

How did they get on in their last campaign? It could hardly have gone much better. Wales qualified for a major tournament for the first time since the 1958 World Cup, taking four points off Belgium, widely considered as one of the world’s best teams, and finishing second in their group to qualify automatically. They exceeded expectations again at Euro 2016, getting as far as the semi-finals before losing to eventual winners Portugal.

History: For a country that has produced more than a few great players, Wales have seldom thrived on the international stage. Before this summer’s Euro 2016 success, they had only qualified once for a major tournament — the 1958 World Cup, where they reached the quarter-finals, before losing 1-0 to a Brazil side that would go on to win the competition outright.

Should Ireland fancy their chances against them? Wales weren’t the worst team to draw as top seeds. You can imagine Ireland beating them more so than a Spain or France, but that said, Chris Coleman’s men will rightly go into both games as favourites.

When do they play Ireland? Home – 24 March, 2017. Away – 9 October, 2017.

Prediction: 1st – In Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale, the Welsh have two players that are not only superior to virtually everyone else’s individuals in this group, but who are good enough to get into virtually any international team in the world. That factor, coupled with their highly impressive Euro 2016 exploits, make them the team to beat in this group.

Austria (2nd seeds)

Soccer Euro 2016 Iceland Austria Source: Francois Mori

Latest squad: Goalkeepers - Robert Almer (Austria Wien), Heinz Lindner (Eintracht Frankfurt), Ramazan Özcan (Bayer Leverkusen) Defenders - Sebastian Prödl (Watford), Aleksandar Dragović (Bayer Leverkusen), György Garics (Darmstadt 98), Florian Klein  (VfB Stuttgart), Martin Hinteregger (FC Augsburg), Markus Suttner (Ingolstadt 04), Kevin Wimmer (Tottenham Hotspur). Midfielders - Martin Harnik (Hannover 96), Zlatko Junuzović (Werder Bremen), David Alaba (Bayern Munich), Julian Baumgartlinger (Bayer Leverkusen), Jakob Jantscher (Çaykur Rizespor), Marcel Sabitzer (RB Leipzig), Stefan Ilsanker (RB Leipzig), Alessandro Schöpf (Schalke 04). Forwards - Marc Janko (Basel), Marko Arnautović (Stoke City), Rubin Okotie (Beijing BG), Lukas Hinterseer (Ingolstadt 04).

Key player: David Alaba - Like the rest of the team, Alaba disappointed at the last Euros, but the 24-year-old Bayern Munich star remains their one obvious world-class player and he has hurt Ireland in the past.

How did they get on in their last campaign? It couldn’t have gone much better for Austria in the qualification round. In 10 matches, they won nine and drew just one in a group that included Sweden and Russia, qualifying convincingly in the process. At the Euro 2016 tournament proper, things went less smoothly. Marcel Koller’s side exited at the group stages, picking up just one point against eventual winners Portugal, in a group also featuring Iceland and Hungary.

History: For a country with a population of close to nine million, their recent record at international level is poor enough comparatively. Aside from Euro 2008, which they co-hosted, Euro 2016 was their only other appearance at the European Championships. They haven’t qualified for a World Cup since 1998, and haven’t gotten further than the group stage in the same competition since 1982. They were somewhat of a force to be reckoned with in the relatively early days of international football, however, finishing fourth in the 1934 World Cup and third in 1954.

Should Ireland fancy their chances against them? The away trip in particular looks a daunting challenge. With Wales having been in such good form of late, Ireland’s qualification hopes could ultimately rest upon how they fare against the Austrians. However, if Iceland and Hungary can defeat them, Ireland must surely go into the games thinking the Austrians are beatable, even if the Boys in Green’s recent record against them isn’t great.

When do they play Ireland? Away – 12 November, 2016. Home – 11 June, 2017.

Prediction: 3rd - Have the potential to win the group if everything goes their way, but as was evident at the Euros, they can also implode when the pressure is on them.

Serbia (3rd seeds)

Serbia Portugal Euro Soccer Source: AP/Press Association Images

Latest squad*: Goalkeepers - Vladimir Stojković (Nottingham Forest), Predrag Rajković (Maccabi Tel Aviv), Marko Dmitrović (Alcorcón), Aleksandar Jovanović (AGF) Defenders - Branislav Ivanović (Chelsea), Antonio Rukavina (Villarreal), Matija Nastasić (Schalke 04), Slobodan Rajković (Palermo), Duško Tošić (Beşiktaş), Aleksandar Ignjovski (Freiburg), Stefan Mitrović (Gent), Filip Mladenović (Köln), Jagoš Vuković (Konyaspor). Midfielders - Zoran Tošić (CSKA Moscow), Dušan Tadić (Southampton), Ljubomir Fejsa (Benfica), Lazar Marković (Sporting CP), Luka Milivojević (Olympiacos), Nemanja Gudelj (Ajax), Filip Kostić (Hamburger SV), Andrija Živković (Benfica), Marko Grujić (Liverpool), Nemanja Maksimović (Astana), Aleksandar Katai (Alavés). Forwards - Aleksandar Mitrović (Newcastle United), Nikola Stojiljković (Braga), Andrija Pavlović (Copenhagen).

*Nemanja Matic and Aleksandar Kolarov are suspended

Key player: Nemanja Matic — Despite an indifferent campaign last season, Matic remains a key part of Chelsea’s midfield, having played all three of their Premier League games so far this season. Yet in a squad with a number of highly promising young players, the 28-year-old’s experience and leadership is crucial to the team’s progress, having earned 29 caps for his country thus far. Luckily for Ireland, he will miss the game on Monday through suspension.

How did they get on in their last campaign? It was a bit of a disaster, though partially due to factors outside of the team’s control. They finished second from bottom on four points in a difficult group that also included Portugal, Albania, Denmark and Armenia. However, their home match against Albania was 0-0 after 42 minutes, but abandoned due to crowd trouble and awarded as a 3-0 victory to the Albanians. They were also docked three points, so of their two victories (home to Armenia and away to Albania), one effectively didn’t count. And while they were beaten twice by Portugal and Denmark respectively, they caused both teams a few problems in the process.

History: Previously playing as Yugoslavia and then Serbia and Montenegro, they began competing as Serbia in the Euro 2008 qualifiers, as they finished third — just three points behind second-place Portugal. They then reached the 2010 World Cup but were knocked out in the group stages, despite only needing a point in their final game to progress. They missed out on Euro 2012 qualification, finishing third and also came third in their World Cup qualifying campaign, before their aformentioned disastrous Euro 2016 campaign.

Should Ireland fancy their chances against them? Serbia were actually drawn as third seeds (Ireland were fourth seeds), though the Boys in Green sit 16 places above them in the current Fifa rankings. A draw away may not be the worst result by any means, but Martin O’Neill’s men should certainly be expecting to beat Slavoljub Muslin’s side at home if they are to retain genuine aspirations of qualification.

When do they play Ireland? Away – 5 September, 2016. Home – 5 September, 2017.

Prediction: 4th – They have a few very good players in their squad, but underachievement in the recent past suggests they are a work in progress at best.

Moldova (5th seeds)

Austria Soccer Moldova Canada Source: AP/Press Association Images

Latest squad: Goalkeepers - Stanislav Namașco (Levadiakos), Ilie Cebanu (Mordovia Saransk), Nicolae Calancea (CS U Craiova), Alexei Koșelev (Sheriff Tiraspol). Defenders - Alexandru Epureanu (İstanbul Başakşehir), Victor Golovatenco (Zaria Bălți), Igor Armaș (Kuban Krasnodar), Vitalie Bordian (Sheriff Tiraspol), Petru Racu (Milsami Orhei), Ion Jardan (Zimbru Chișinău), Veaceslav Posmac (Dacia Chișinău), Andrian Cașcaval (Luch-Energiya Vladivostok). Midfielders - Alexandru Suvorov (Zaria Bălți), Alexandru Gațcan (Rostov), Eugeniu Cebotaru (Sibir Novosibirsk), Valeriu Andronic (Academia Chișinău), Alexandru Dedov (Milsami Orhei), Artur Ioniță (Cagliari), Andrei Cojocari (Milsami Orhei), Vladislav Ivanov (Sheriff Tiraspol), Maxim Mihaliov (Zaria Bălți), Vladimir Ambros (Petrocub Hîncești), Eugeniu Cociuc (Dacia Chișinău). Forwards - Igor Bugaiov (Zaria Bălți), Eugen Sidorenco (Milsami Orhei), Igor Picușceac (Zaria Bălți), Radu Gînsari (Sheriff Tiraspol).

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Key player: Artur Ioniță - The majority of the squad play their football in Moldova, but one anomaly is Artur Ioniță, who has impressed in Italy. He joined Hellas Verona in 2014, and was even linked with reigning champions Juventus, Napoli and Swansea, before moving to Calgiari in the summer.

How did they get on in their last campaign? Terribly. They picked up just two points from 10 matches, finishing last in the aforementioned group which Austria won. They even lost one of their matches against Liechtenstein, though a 1-1 draw with Russia suggests they can still be a potential banana skin for sides with any complacency within their ranks. Moreover, they were at least difficult to beat — no side in the group defeated them by more than two goals.

History: Formed amid the break up of the Soviet Union, Moldova played their first-ever international match against Georgia in 1991. Euro ’96 was their first qualifying round, and they have yet to reach a major tournament since, and haven’t ever really threatened to either.

Should Ireland fancy their chances against them? Anything other than six points would be a big disappointment for Martin  O’Neill’s side and a significant setback to their qualification hopes to boot.

When do they play Ireland? Home – 9 October, 2016. Away – 6 October, 2017.

Prediction: 6th - Barring a disastrous campaign from any of the other sides, they will surely fight it out with the Georgians for bottom spot. Georgia’s big result in the last set of qualifiers (the defeat of Scotland) came towards the end of their campaign, whereas Moldova’s draw with Russia was near the beginning, which suggests the Georgians are getting better while the Moldovan team are becoming worse.

Georgia (6th seeds)

Soccer - UEFA Euro 2016 - Qualifying - Group D - Georgia v Scotland - Boris Paichadze Dinamo Arena Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

Latest squad: Goalkeepers - Giorgi Loria (Krylia Sovetov), Nukri Revishvili (Free Agent), Giorgi Makaridze (Moreirense), Roini Kvaskhvadze (Torpedo Kutaisi). Defenders - Aleksandr Amisulashvili (Dinamo Tbilisi), Ucha Lobjanidze (Dinamo Tbilisi), Guram Kashia (Vitesse), Giorgi Navalovski (Veria), Solomon Kvirkvelia (Rubin Kazan), Lasha Dvali (Śląsk Wrocław), Otar Kakabadze (Gimnàstic), Zourab Tsiskaridze (Teplice), Davit Khocholava (Chornomorets Odesa). Midfielders - Aleksandre Kobakhidze (Vorskla Poltava), Jano Ananidze (Spartak Moscow), Levan Kenia (Slavia Prague), Tornike Okriashvili (Free Agent), Murtaz Daushvili (Diósgyőri), Valeri Kazaishvili (Legia Warsaw), Giorgi Chanturia (Ural Yekaterinburg), Nika Kvekveskiri (Gabala), Giorgi Aburjania (Sevilla Atlético), Giorgi Papunashvili (Dinamo Tbilisi), Jambul Jighauri (Dinamo Tbilisi). Forwards - Sergo Kobesashvili (FC Borjomi), Levan Mchedlidze (Empoli), Otar Martsvaladze (Ordabasy), Giorgi Kvilitaia (Rapid Wien), Davit Skhirtladze (Silkeborg).

Key player: Spartak Moscow’s Jano Ananidze has been linked with Liverpool and Arsenal in the past, and at 23, remains Georgian football’s big hope for the future. He has also started the new season well in Russia, scoring three goals in three appearances.

How did they get on in their last campaign? Not as well as they would have hoped, but in a difficult group featuring Germany, Ireland, Poland and Scotland, nine points wasn’t too bad by their standards. They were also a little unlucky on a few occasions, particularly against Ireland in their home match, when only a last-gasp piece of magic from Aiden McGeady denied them a point.

History: Formed owing to the break up of the Soviet Union, Georgia had their first international match in 1990, though only had their first qualification campaign in 1996. That debut attempt at qualifying was also comfortably their best run of results so far, finishing third behind eventual tournament winners Germany and Bulgaria. Since then, they have invariably tended to finish last or second last in every major tournament qualifying round in which they have been involved.

Should Ireland fancy their chances against them? Yes, although as Ireland know well from the last campaign, they can’t take anything for granted against the Georgians. They were lucky to take six points off them last time out, and there shouldn’t be any sense of complacency in the coming matches.

When do they play Ireland? 6 October, 2016. 2 September, 2017.

Prediction: 5th - Georgia have shown signs of gradual improvement of late, but need to be more consistent. They should be good enough to finish above Moldova and will hope that, at the very least, they can also cause a few more Scotland-esque shocks.

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Paul Fennessy

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