A play-off for the play-offs: Breaking down Ireland's possible path to the World Cup

Vera Pauw’s side welcome Finland to Tallaght Stadium on Thursday night as part of a decisive double-header.

The Ireland XI that faced Georgia in their last World Cup qualifier.
The Ireland XI that faced Georgia in their last World Cup qualifier.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

THE REPUBLIC OF Ireland women’s national team welcome Finland to Dublin on Thursday for arguably their biggest game in recent history.

A win for Vera Pauw’s side at Tallaght Stadium will guarantee a 2023 World Cup play-off position with one game remaining in Group A, as they look to reach a first-ever major tournament.

While there’s no catching the group’s runaway winners Sweden, who have qualified automatically for next summer’s finals in Australia and New Zealand, the race is most certainly on for second place.

It’s a straight shootout between Ireland and Finland, as the Girls in Green round off the group stages with a trip to Slovakia next Tuesday.

A decisive double-header with so much riding on it.

Screen Shot 2022-08-29 at 18.27.08 Source: Uefa.

As things stand, Ireland are on 11 points and Finland are on 10. Slovakia have five, so the maximum they can finish on is 11, effectively ruling them out of the play-off picture.

Finland also play Sweden at home next week, while Slovakia travel to minnows Georgia.

So, in as straightforward terms as possible:

  • If Ireland beat the Finns, none of that matters and they progress. From Ireland’s perspective, Thursday’s game is effectively a play-off for the play-offs.
  • If it’s a draw against Finland, Ireland must then equal or better Finland’s result against Sweden in their own game against Slovakia.
  • If Ireland lose to Finland, they have to beat Slovakia and wait on other results.
  • And if they lose to Finland and fail to beat Slovakia, they’re out of the running.

(To note: Ireland’s goal difference situation is looking good, if needed.)

In general, the message coming from camp is cautious confidence. “But we will not put on pants that are too big in size, because those pants will end up at your ankles. We can only succeed if we are realistic,” Pauw stressed last week, using a Dutch phrase.

While refusing to be properly drawn on the convoluted play-off route which could potentially lie ahead, the manager referred to another.

“First Finland, because as we say in Dutch, ‘Don’t sell the skin of a bear before you shoot him.’ It is a very hard and long road to go still.”

But there’s no harm in taking a quick look at it ourselves, is there? 

Brace yourselves, it’s complicated.

vera-pauw Vera Pauw speaking in a press conference last week. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

While the winners of the nine qualifying groups progress directly to next summer’s finals, the group runners-up get stuck into play-offs from October.

The three best second-place finishers will be seeded directly to Round Two. The six remaining runners-up contest three single-leg play-offs in Round One.

(As it stands, the representatives from Group A — Ireland’s group — are likely to qualify as one of the lower-ranked runners-up and take their place in Round One. Belgium, Switzerland and Iceland currently occupy the top three positions, and with it, a place in Round Two.)

The three winners from Round One and the three teams seeded directly to Round Two will then compete in single-leg play-offs, determined by a draw.

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Of those three winners in the Round Two fixtures, the two play-off winners with the highest ranking (based on results in the qualifying group stage and Round Two play-offs) will qualify directly for the World Cup.

The remaining play-off winner will compete in the first-ever Fifa Women’s World Cup play-off tournament, or inter-confederation play-offs, next February.

That tournament sees 10 teams competing for the last three qualifying spots for the finals.

The 10 participating teams will come from Asia (two – Chinese Taipei and Thailand have already qualified), Africa (two), North and Central America and the Caribbean (two), South America (two), Europe (one) and Oceania (one), with the play-off tournament to be played at Waikato Stadium and North Harbour Stadium, in Hamilton and Auckland.

For now, it’s all about Tallaght Stadium on Thursday, as Ireland aim to hit rarely-scaled heights.

The closest the team has ever come was the Euro 2009 play-offs, when they fell to Iceland.

A play-off for a play-off lies in wait, Pauw’s words last Friday the best way to leave it: “It’s a final. We will do everything we can to get a result.”

Ireland’s remaining Group A fixtures

  • Republic of Ireland v Finland, Thursday, 1 September, Tallaght Stadium, KO 7pm
  • Slovakia v Republic of Ireland, Tuesday, 6 September, NTC Senec, Slovakia, KO 6pm.

- updated 21.38

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Emma Duffy

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