World Cup qualifying play-offs: Does it matter for Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland whether you play home or away first?

 
Joe Hall
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Northern Ireland v Czech Republic - FIFA 2018 World Cup Qualifier
Michael O'Neill says playing at home first favours Northern Ireland - is he right? (Source: Getty)

Both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have been bullish about their chances of winning their respective World Cup qualifying play-offs against Switzerland and Denmark this week and booking their flights to next summer's finals in Russia.

For Republic manager Martin O’Neill, whose side travel to Copenhagen for the first leg on Saturday, the draw had been kind.

“I’m delighted to be drawn away from home first,” he said last month.

Conversely, Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill was pleased to be welcoming the Swiss to Belfast for the first leg of their tie on Thursday.

“With the second leg away, it gives you the benefit of an away goal and the consequences of that,” opined the other O’Neill.

Perhaps it’s little wonder that both managers were able to spin opposing circumstances as an advantage to their side — results from previous World Cup and European Championship play-offs have not overwhelmingly benefitted sides in either situation in the past.

Bosnia and Herzegovina v Republic of Ireland - UEFA EURO 2016 Qualifier: Play-Off First Leg
Ireland overcame a ranking deficit to beat Bosnia & Herzegovina in their Euro 2016 play-off (Source: Getty)

With the exception of the 2008 European Championship, two legged play-offs have been held to determine Uefa’s final entrants at every major tournament since Euro ‘96.

That’s 36 ties in total, 17 of which have been won by the team playing the first leg at home and 19 of which have been won by the team who started on the road – a difference of two; hardly a sign of any inherent advantage.

A more instructive signifier of how these ties may play out is world governing body Fifa’s oft-lampooned rankings.

Sides who had a higher ranking ahead of a play-off won 27 times – 75 per cent of occasions – and lost just nine.

That’s bad news for the teams who hold the most interest in the British Isles.

Denmark, ranked 19th in the world by Fifa, are seven places ahead of the Republic of Ireland while world No23 Northern Ireland are 12 places behind No11 Switzerland.

That may not particularly perturb Martin O’Neill and his Republic of Ireland side, who were ranked nine places below Bosnia and Herzegovina in their victorious 2015 play-off to reach last year’s European Championship.

Yet in their three previous major tournament play-off losses — to France in 2009, Turkey in 1999 and Belgium in 1997 – as well as their other victory, against Estonia in 2011, it has held true that the best-ranked side has won.

Irish national football team goalkeeper
Ireland suffered play-off heartbreak when an extra-time goal against France cost them a place at the 2010 World Cup (Source: Getty)

Could it be that the unique nature of a play-off tie — the stakes at play, the pressure of an expectant nation, the little room for error — favour teams with certain tactics or playing styles?

It seems reasonable to suggest that the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland would be better described as functional and organised rather than attacking and adventurous.

Of the eight qualifying games Uefa uses to determine which sides makes it into the play-offs — fixtures against the bottom-placed side are excluded — the Republic of Ireland scored just seven goals, fewer than any other team.

With 10 goals scored, Northern Ireland fared slightly better, yet both sides were outscored by their forthcoming opponents. Denmark scored 13 goals while Switzerland netted 18.

Of the 36 ties assessed, 22 were won by the side that had scored more goals in qualifying — nearly two thirds.

And only 10 of 36 ties have been won by teams with a inferior goal difference ahead of the play-off.

No team in this year’s play-offs has a worse goal difference than the Republic of Ireland’s +2, while no team comes close to that of Northern Ireland’s opponents Switzerland on +12.

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