Ireland vs Scotland – Taking on added importance
At the halfway stage of the European Championship qualification process, 15 points have already been contested by each nation and as many again remain up for grabs. In Group D, the five fixtures which lie ahead will all be important in their own right.
For the Republic of Ireland and Scotland, though, their next competitive outing may be the most decisive of the lot. On June 13, Gordon Strachan’s side will make the short journey over to Dublin for a potentially make-or-break encounter.
The expanded format of next summer’s tournament in France means that – unlike in previous years – a top-three standing will be enough to keep dreams of progress alive. Those finishing in first or second spot in their respective group will qualify automatically, while the best third-placed side will also march on without the need for a play-off – with the remaining six third-placed finishers set to battle it out among themselves.
As things stand, Group D looks like being as keenly-contested as any other, which means three places at Euro 2016 could be filled from those ranks. It is, however, looking increasingly likely that only one of those berths will go to Scotland or Ireland.
At present, they are locked in a mini-battle for third. Things are still tight enough that both could push on positively from this point. But with an in-form Poland to be taken into account and the small matter of reigning world champions Germany, two will probably have to go into one.
Taking that into account, June’s meeting at the Aviva Stadium will be crucial.
Scotland hold a two-point advantage heading into the tie, with their campaign to date including a 1-0 victory over the Irish at Celtic Park back in November – with a Shaun Maloney effort proving to be the difference on the day.
With another tight affair in store, Strachan would undoubtedly settle for a share of the spoils prior to kick-off, helping to keep Martin O’Neill’s men at arm’s length. Success for the hosts, though, will lift them above their rivals and back into pole position for that all-important third spot. Ireland also, arguably, have the better preparation in store for a pivotal encounter.
They are due to entertain England, ranked 14th in the world by FIFA, less than a week before hosting the Scots in what promises to be another highly-charged clash. Meanwhile, Strachan’s troops warm-up for a return to meaningful action with a home date against Qatar, who are ranked way down in 99th spot.
Form tends to go out of the window, though, on occasions such as these and both bosses, groups of players and sets of supporters are unlikely to read too much into the outcome of their respective friendly contests.
It is on the following weekend that results really matter and where the business must be done without cause for excuse or regret.
Celtic passion will be in plentiful supply but only one side will end the evening feeling a lot more positive about their position, with Scotland either maintaining or enhancing their standing. Meanwhile, Ireland – considered at 7/4 at the time of writing by international football betting markets to book their tickets to France – will find themselves right back in the race or on the periphery of it.
Sources: fifa.com / dailymail.co.uk / bbc.com