Sep 7, 2009

All four British teams and the Republic of Ireland could make the World Cup. Really

This is not a joke. England are all but qualified and can book their trip to South Africa with a win over Croatia Wednesday. Northern Ireland can win their group with victories in their last two games and a little help. Their neighbors to the south, the Republic of Ireland, have an outside shot of winning their group but should at least finish second. Scotland are in good shape to finish second in Group 9--all they need is a point against Holland on Wednesday or hope that Macedonia and Norway play to a draw.

That leaves Wales, who undoubtedly face the longest odds. John Toshack's team sit a distant fourth in Group 4, nine points behind second-placed Russia with three games to play. But Wales still has a shot at completing the sweep. It needs to start with a decisive victory over Russia at Cardiff on Wednesday. Did I mention that Russia has a +12 goal difference to Wales' -2 and that goal differential is the first tie-breaker, according to FIFA rules? No? Well it is. Okay, so the odds are very long indeed. But Wales can still make it. They need to trounce Russia to narrow the gap in goal difference between the two sides. Then Wales need to win their penultimate group stage match at third-placed Finland on Oct. 10. Not an easy task either. Even less so with goal difference a factor and Finland still very much part of the race for second (especially if Russia lose at Wales, which will need to happen for us to even have these conversations in the first place). They will also need Germany to beat Russia that same day--again, by a high as score as possible. That leaves the final matchday, where Wales have to beat up on Liechtenstein while hoping that Russia lose at Azerbaijan. The chances of all of these taking place are admittedly remote. If Wales beats Russia by anything less than two goals you can all but forget about it. But the possibility does exist.

Of course second place only guarantees a playoff match to get in and with some of the teams likely to finish second (France and Portugal come to mind) these could be some very tough matchups indeed. Or two of the teams could face each other.

But even if only three of the four British clubs qualify, plus Ireland, it will still be a monumental occurrence. When was the last time that happened? Scotland have not been to a major tournament since 1998 and Northern Ireland last saw action in 1982, if memory serves.

Of course there is also the possibility that no British teams will qualify. Northern Ireland face tough matches against Slovakia and at the Czech Republic, Ireland might need a result against World Champions Italy on the penultimate matchday. Scotland can easily miss out and even England can be caught if they lose to Croatia. With the direction British football has taken recently, that might be the more likely outcome.

Image taken from without permission.

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