Giovanni Trapattoni will lead the Republic of Ireland against Austria tonight for what should be one of the final games of his tenure. This is the business end of the qualification cycle now, when those teams who are not close to qualifying wonder why, and how things might be different next time.
After the Republic’s distressing, chastening 2-1 home defeat by Sweden on Friday night, they need an unlikely set of results – starting with a win in Vienna this evening, and then in Cologne next month – to stay in contention for second place in Group C.
The great likelihood, then, is that Ireland will not be in Brazil next summer. And Trapattoni acknowledged yesterday morning that this might be the end. “I don't expect after this campaign, to go again with Ireland.” There are some Irish fans who think he should not have been given this campaign either.
Germany, at the top of the group, can confirm first place tonight. They need Sweden to fail to win in Kazakhstan, and then they need to win in the Faeroe Islands. Even if it does not happen, Joachim Low’s team should complete the job next month while Sweden and Austria compete for second.
Ireland do, at least, have more to play for than Scotland and Wales, who play Macedonia away and Serbia at home respectively tonight. Gareth Bale will have a scan to determine whether he can play. Not very much will be at stake – those four sides are all out of the running in Group A, with Belgium and Croatia far ahead in first and second. They next play next month in Zagreb – a draw would win Belgium the group.
The next team, after Germany, most likely to confirm qualification this evening is Italy. Cesare Prandelli’s side are currently seven points clear in Group B of second-placed Bulgaria, whom they beat 1-0 on Friday in Palermo. Tonight they host Czech Republic at the Juventus Stadium in Turin, knowing a win will be enough. Mario Balotelli and Dani Osvaldo both return from suspension.
Beneath Italy, there is just one point separating the four teams competing for fourth place – Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Denmark and dark horses Armenia. That will not be resolved until the final game.
The Netherlands, coached by Louis Van Gaal, need other results to help them seal qualification tonight. But a win in Andorra would mean that, at most, only a goal difference disaster can stop them from winning group D. Results are going their way – they drew 2-2 in Estonia on Friday, Robin van Persie equalising with a 94 minute penalty – and they would not be tempting fate too flagrantly if they booked their flights this week.
Turkey, the second-favourites in that group, have struggled so far and need a result in Romania – who are three points ahead of them – or else they may miss the play-offs.
Group E looks even – with Switzerland four points clear and then just two points separating Norway, Albania, Iceland and Slovenia – but the Swiss can qualify tonight with a win in Oslo. Ottmar Hitzfeld would take this talented squad – with the creative talent of Xherdan Shaqiri, Valentin Stocker and Granit Xhaka – to his second consecutive World Cup. It would be the perfect recovery from Friday night, when Switzerland were 4-1 up against Iceland, and drew 4-4.
The tensest groups are those where nothing can be decided tonight. In Group F, Russia can climb back above Portugal with a win over Israel, who can themselves still win the group if they win all three of their remaining games. Northern Ireland, who can certainly take positives from this campaign, play in Luxembourg.
Bosnia, desperate to qualify for the first World Cup since independence, need a response in Slovakia this evening. They looked like running away with Group G, but a 1-0 home defeat on Friday to the same opposition leaves them tied on points with Greece, despite a 15-superior goal difference. Greece will probably keep getting results – Bosnia have no option but to bounce back.
Then, finally, there is Group I – the five-team oddity. France play in Belarus and if they do not win then Spain – currently three points clear and playing a friendly against Chile tonight, can win the group if they beat Belarus in Majorca next month.