The reaction to the Republic of Ireland being drawn in Group D for the Euro 2016 qualifiers against Germany, Poland, Scotland, Georgia and Gibraltar was one of pessimism.
Due to the Michel Platini’s success in having the competition expanded to 24 teams, and Ireland having appointed a new coaching ticket in Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane, this was the first tournament in years that Ireland would have been genuinely expecting to qualify for.
However, when the draw came out, the general feeling in the Ireland camp was ‘it could have been easier’. While this may be true, if the Republic of Ireland can’t get out of this group then they don’t deserve to be at France 2016.
In any other year, the group would have certainly been a tough one. Ireland had been comprehensively beaten by Germany both times they faced each other in the qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup, and the Germans would be almost certain to top any group they were drawn in.
Scotland are over 30 places above the RoI in the FIFA world rankings and have been recently experiencing something of a resurgence under Gordon Strachan. And while Ireland may have beaten Poland 2-0 in their recent friendly at the Aviva Stadium, the Poles boast players with Champions League pedigree in Borussia Dortmund pair Robert Lewandowski and Jakub Blaszczykowski.
However, the expansion of Euro 2016 means that the top two teams from every group will automatically qualify for the tournament, with the third placed teams going into a play-off. In addition to this, the best-placed third placed team i.e. the one that finishes with the most points across all the groups, will also receive automatic qualification.
Making the rather modest assumption that Germany will top the group, this means that Ireland essentially have to finish in the top two places of a mini five-team group that includes Poland, Scotland, Georgia and Gibraltar. Of these five teams, only one are above the Republic of Ireland in the FIFA world rankings, and that’s Scotland; who last qualified for a major international tournament in 1998.
For Gibraltar, this is their first time being included in the qualification process, after only recently achieving recognition as an international team. And although they drew their first full match against Slovakia, their recent 4-1 defeat to the Faroe Islands would suggest that they will be the whipping boys of the group.
Georgia will undoubtedly provide a sterner challenge for Ireland, with some highlighting the away trip to Tbilisi as being a potential banana skin in the group. However, the Georgians remain outside the top 100 in FIFA’s ranking and around half of their squad still ply their trade in the underdeveloped Georgian Premier League.
The real competition in the group comes in the form Poland and Scotland, who are both more than capable of taking points off Ireland. While the Celtic rivalry with the Scots provides an extra element of unpredictability, and the amount of Poles now living in Ireland means that the home tie with Poland will be anything but.
To put all this into context, UEFA is made up of 53 national teams, of which, 24 will go to the European Championship in 2016. That means that almost half of teams involved in qualification will make an appearance at the tournament. But of these 53 teams, many, such as San Marino and Andorra, have such small pools of talent to draw from that they are not realistically in contention for qualification at all. This means that Ireland effectively don’t even have to be in the best 50% of teams in order to make it to France 2016.
Taken in this light, the bar is set pretty low, even by the Republic of Ireland’s standards. While many have bemoaned Group D as a tough draw, in truth, if Ireland can’t qualify from the group then they don’t deserve to be at the European Championships in 2016.