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Explainer: What is still at stake in Ireland's Nations League campaign

The remaining games will have a major role in deciding Ireland’s path to the 2022 World Cup.

Sorry, I’ve not been fully paying attention. What’s the Uefa Nations League? 

The Nations League was introduced in 2018 as an alternative to pointless international friendlies. It sorts nations into four separate divisions according to their world ranking, and into mini-groups of four teams within each division. There is promotion and relegation between divisions.

stephen-kenny-dejected Stephen Kenny reacts during Ireland's draw with Wales. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Jurgen Klopp called it the “most senseless competition in the world”, but it does have some significance, as it offers a backdoor to the play-offs for major tournament.

Ireland have benefited from it, as it was because of the Nations League that Ireland ended up in last week’s game against Slovakia.

Plus, the television contracts for the competition have yielded important sources of revenue for many football associations across Europe. None more so than the FAI, who drew down come of their funds early to stay afloat last year.

Ireland are in the second tier – League B – and are presently halfway through a group with Finland, Bulgaria and Wales.

Can we get a play-off from this year’s Nations League? 

We can, but it’s going to be a lot more difficult than before. 

If you can allow yourself to remember, Ireland won precisely none of their games under Martin O’Neill in 2018, and would have been relegated to the third tier – League C – but for a Uefa decision to change the format of this year’s competition.

In spite of Ireland’s wretched performances, they still ended up in the play-offs, as most of the sides ranked above us were good enough to qualify via the traditional qualification groups.

Ireland’s incompetence in 2018 went generously rewarded because there are 24 teams going to the European Championships. 

By contrast, only 13 teams from Europe are going to the World Cup. 

So, to fix the glitch Ireland benefitted from two years ago, now only group winners will be  in the mix for a World Cup play-off. 

The traditional qualification campaign – the draw for which is in December – will consist of 10 groups, with the 10 group winners qualifying for the World Cup. The 10 runners up head to the play-offs, and they will be joined by two best-ranked sides who both finished top of their Nations League groups and failed to finish in the top two of their qualifying group. 

It’s slightly confusing, but if Ireland want to rely on the Nations League for a play-off then they have to win their group. 

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Okay, so where are Ireland in the group at the moment?

At the halfway stage, we are second-from bottom with two points from three games, five points from leaders Wales and four from second-placed Finland. 

Winning the group from here looks a distant prospect. But three wins from the final three games would put us in contention, albeit relying on results elsewhere. 

That said judging by how bad Wales were yesterday, it’s not outlandish to suggest they might drop a few points between now and the end of the campaign. 

What’s next for Ireland? 

Ireland fly to Helsinki tomorrow for a clash with Finland on Wednesday. 

After that, the campaign wraps up in the November international window: Ireland are away to Wales on 15 November, and at home to Bulgaria on 18 November. 

How are Ireland fixed for the Finland game? 

Having lost five players around a Covid case the morning of the Wales games, Stephen Kenny has bolstered his ranks by calling up Jason Knight and Dara O’Shea from the U21s, along with Ryan Manning and Ronan Curtis from QPR and Portsmouth respectively. 

Adam Idah and Aaron Connolly are also back with the squad as the Covid test that saw them sidelined as close contacts proved to be a false positive. 

Is there anything else at stake? 

Yes. The more wins Ireland pick up between now and the end of November, the higher their Fifa world ranking will be come the World Cup qualifying draw in December. 

As it stands we are in Pot Three, but are well in contention to climb the rankings to become second seeds. The ranking system is complex and a moveable feast, but it will prove to be vitally important at the end of this campaign. 

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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