Trends are there to be bucked, but the Republic of Ireland must overcome a pattern of progress by seeded teams in World Cup play-off ties when they face Denmark in Copenhagen and Dublin.
Since the European play-offs were introduced in their present form for the 1998 tournament, seeded teams have advanced on 13 occasions in 19 ties (a 68% success rate).
However, at least one unseeded team has reached the final stages every four years. The first of these was Belgium, who pulled the rankings against Mick McCarthy’s Ireland with a 3-2 aggregate victory 20 years ago.
Contrary to common belief, seeded teams have not automatically enjoyed home advantage for the second leg of a play-off tie, and unseeded Belgium’s success against Ireland in November 1997 provides a template for Martin O’Neill’s team this year. In the first leg, Belgium scored an equaliser in Dublin as the match ended 1-1. Two weeks later in Brussels they won 2-1 to book a ticket to France.
Likewise, unseeded Slovenia grabbed a late away goal against Russia as they lost 2-1 in Moscow eight years ago. A 1-0 home win in the second leg saw Slovenia through to South Africa.
France was the only unseeded team to qualify after failing to score away in the first leg. Four years ago Les Bleus lost 2-0 to Ukraine in Kiev before winning 3-0 in Paris.
While home advantage in the second leg is considered important, history paints a less decisive picture: 10 of the 19 ties (53%) have been won by the team playing at home in the second leg.
Although no European play-off has gone to a penalty shoot-out, two have been decided on the away goals rule. In addition to Slovenia’s 2009 success against Russia mentioned above, unseeded Switzerland upset Turkey in dramatic fashion 12 years ago. After beating Turkey 2-0 in the first leg in Bern, the Swiss needed two away goals in Istanbul to progress after a 4-4 aggregate draw.
Surprisingly, only one tie has required extra-time. In Paris eight years ago, with the aggregate score between France and Ireland tied at 1-1, Thierry Henry had a hand in William Gallas’ decisive goal.
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