Wales and the Irish challenge: Seeds of doubt as the North go for final push

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The Independent Football

Varying degrees of uncertainty surround Wales, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland as they go into next week's final effort in the European Championship qualifiers. Both Irelands have temporary managers in Don Givens and Nigel Worthington, while the noises John Toshack has been making with Wales of late suggest that the 58-year-old is less than fulfilled as he approaches his third anniversary in the post.

It could be said the ambiguity is not inappropriate given that Fifa are yet to decide definitively as to the criteria for the draw for the next World Cup, which will be held in Durban a fortnight today. It has not been confirmed if that draw will be based on Fifa rankings at the end of the European Championship or the traditional method of selection: points gained over the previous two Uefa and Fifa campaigns.

Either way, there is more than mere pride to play for when Wales host the Republic in Cardiff on Saturday – although both managers have talked about the morale boost of finishing third in a group in which Germany and the Czech Republic are already through.

"Third place for us would have been a great achievement after all the problems we have had, and we can still grab it," Toshack said this week.

At the same time, Givens spoke of national pride, understandable in the context of Steve Staunton's dismissal and the acrimony that has followed the team seemingly all the way in Group D. But the Football Association of Ireland appear confident that the Republic will be ranked in the third tier when the Durban draw comes, regardless of how they perform in Cardiff. The Irish are third in the group at present, but Slovakia and Cyprus as well as Wales could yet take that place.

Northern Ireland are fourth in Group F but still have the possibility, however unlikely, of reaching next summer's finals in Austria and Switzerland.

A combination of results is required for that to happen, not least that Northern Ireland overcome Denmark first at Windsor Park next Saturday night and then beat Spain in Las Palmas four days later.

Even if that long-odds win double is achieved, they still have to rely on Spain or Sweden slipping up in their remaining two games. The good news is that Spain host Sweden in Madrid next Saturday. A point for Sweden in the Bernabeu, for example, (assuming an Irish win over Denmark), would mean that Worthington's squad would go to Tenerife knowing it is all or nothing over 90 minutes.

Spain would also know that, and the memories of 1982 would flood back. Lawrie Sanchez, Worthington's predecessor and the man who orchestrated the North's rise up the Fifa rankings, is bullish. "I'm sure Northern Ireland can beat the Danes and if the Spain result [against Sweden] goes their way, it all comes down to the final game in Las Palmas," Sanchez says. "If it does then I've no doubt Northern Ireland will get the result to go through."

That could not be described as a typical view in Belfast. Worthington is not the type to get ahead of things, and the two recent losses in Latvia and Iceland have not just undone much of the excellent work built by Sanchez, they have also undermined Worthington's application for the job full-time, should he want it.

Dropping players such as Kyle Lafferty and Stephen Craigan has caused consternation within Northern Ireland, and eyebrows were again raised this week with a squad selection that has seen Manchester United's hugely impressive teenage defender Jonny Evans reduced to the Under-21 squad. Evans is good enough to have come on in United's midweek Champions' League win over Dynamo Kiev, and Sir Alex Ferguson said afterwards that Evans may appear against Sporting Lisbon.

Another Irish youngster at Old Trafford has been troubling the associations north and south of the border this week, and Fifa. Darron Gibson is on loan from United at Wolves but has become the subject of a tug of war between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

Born in Derry, Gibson represented the North at under-age level but then switched to win a first senior cap for the Republic in August. The North want him back, and Fifa initially appeared to back their cause. But this week Fifa ruled that any Irish player could choose their preferred "country". Northern Ireland are expected to appeal; Fifa may change their mind again. Uncertainty is catching.

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