It’s still theoretically possible for Martin O’Neill’s team to qualify automatically as group winners. But since this would require unbeaten Serbia to lose away to Austria and at home to Georgia, that prospect looks unlikely.
Four points against Moldova and Wales would raise Ireland’s total to 17. For purposes of calculating the eight best runners-up across the nine European groups, it’s necessary to subtract the six points that would have been gained against bottom-of-the-table Moldova.
In these circumstances, it’s probable that 11 points in the mini-league of second-placed teams would leave Ireland adrift and excluded from the play-offs.
So assuming Ireland have to win both matches against Moldova and Wales, will a tally of 13 points from the matches with Serbia, Wales, Austria and Georgia be good enough to reach the play-offs?
It will be if certain scenarios unfold.
With Belgium safely qualified, the scrap for second spot between Bosnia-Herzegovina and Greece offers Ireland’s best chance of salvation. While Bosnia-Herzegovina currently lead Greece by one point, they have only eight points in the mini-league, with two “ranking” matches to play (at home to Belgium and away to Estonia).
Even four points would leave Bosnia-Herzegovina short of Ireland’s maximum potential total. Greece have one “ranking” match remaining, away to Cyprus, where any slip-up will leave their mini-league points (10 at present) short of Ireland’s maximum.
Montenego and Denmark have identical records, three points behind leaders Poland, and with 10 points for mini-league purposes. They meet in Podgorica on October 5, and a draw would boost Ireland’s chances. Montenegro visit Poland in their final match, while Denmark would expect to beat Romania in Copenhagen, which would be bad news for Ireland.
Scotland’s current surge could help Ireland’s cause. Defeat in Glasgow next month would leave Slovakia stranded on 12 points in the mini-league, but still hopeful of regaining second place in their final match at home to bottom team Malta, when Scotland visit Slovenia, who currently edge Gordon Strachan’s team on goal difference. Two wins for Scotland, however, would put them beyond Ireland’s reach.
Sweden, who are likely to finish second behind France, currently have 10 points in the mini-league table and a goal-difference of +2. A narrow home win or a draw against Luxembourg, followed by a heavy defeat away to the Netherlands, would leave the Swedes vulnerable to becoming the 9th-ranked runner-up.
What we know for certain is that Germany, Portugal, Spain, and Switzerland are guaranteed, at the very least, to contest the play-offs, while Northern Ireland and Serbia will not finish outside the top two in their groups.