The Draw With Ireland: Good Or Bad For Scottish Qualification Hopes?
I won’t lie to you. This question is still puzzling me despite scratching my head for the past day in the hope that an answer falls out.
Gordon Strachan’s Scotland side earned a 1-1 draw in Dublin on Saturday afternoon, yet there was no consensus among fans back home in the pubs around Glasgow. Was the draw good for Scottish qualification hopes or was it a disaster? In this piece, rather than provide one definitive answer (unless my head scratching finally provides a Eureka moment) I shall present the three main arguments for either side. Then you can scratch your own head for as long as you like.
Three Reasons Why The Draw Was Good
1. Better Head-To-Head Record Than Ireland
Should two teams remain level on points in a qualifying group for France 2016, it won’t be goal difference that separates them. Before goal difference applies, the head-to-head records will separate two teams.
For that very reason, Scotland’s draw in Dublin was a good result. Whatever happens over the remaining fixtures, Scotland will 100% have a better head-to-head record over Ireland having won 1-0 in Glasgow and drawn 1-1 this weekend.
When Shaun Maloney equalised via John O’Shea’s back on Saturday afternoon, his strike was worth four points in Scotland’s personal battle with Ireland. As well as costing the Irish two points and gaining Scotland one, the goal is essentially worth a further point since Scotland will now come out ahead of Ireland if the pair finish level on points. Scotland, therefore, are a massive step closer to securing a play-off spot at the very least.
2. Scotland Should Have Lost
The second half performance at the Aviva Stadium was much improved on its first half sibling, but Scotland were still much poorer than they have been for most of this campaign. This was the worst away performance of the qualifiers after a narrow defeat in Dortmund and a memorable draw in Warsaw.
Several players (such as Scott Brown, Steven Naismith and Craig Forsyth) played poorly, particularly in that first period. Although Jonathan Walters’s goal was offside, Ireland deserved the lead at the break and it looked like Scotland would be sent home empty handed. For that reason, taking away a draw is not as bad as this day out in Dublin could have been.
3. Automatic Qualification Is Still On
Although Scotland lost ground on Poland and Germany this weekend, the Ireland point keeps alive hopes of a spot in the top two automatic qualification places in Group D.
Germany should finally click into gear and secure a place in the finals (despite only being two points ahead of Scotland after having played Gibraltar twice), but Poland remain very much within Scotland’s sights. The Poles are three points ahead of the Scots, but must still travel to Germany and host an Ireland side desperate for points. Also on Poland’s fixture list is a trip to Glasgow to play Scotland themselves, where a win would give Scotland the head-to-head advantage.
A four point lead might have been too much for Scotland to make up, but with an inarguably easier fixture list than Poland there is no reason why Strachan’s men cannot take advantage of any Poland slip up.
Three Reasons Why The Draw Was Bad
1. This Is The ‘Group Of Death’
Even before Germany won the World Cup, Group D was viewed as the toughest of the qualifying groups for Euro 2016. With three teams that had qualified for the previous Euro Championships, plus Gordon Strachan’s much-improved Scots (even if that wasn’t hard), this was a group that was always going to be a challenge even with two and a half qualifying spots in the new expanded format.
Any slip-up, therefore, will be severely punished and with a potentially tricky trip to Georgia to come, as well as matches with Germany and Poland (albeit at home), Scotland’s failure to win in Dublin has afforded them no more lifelines. Any more failures in the remaining four matches (bar the Germany match which nobody expects Scotland to win) will surely rule out automatic qualification.
2. Ireland Are Left Fighting
While Scotland maintained their head-to-head record over Ireland, a win in Dublin would have all but cemented third place. Although avoiding defeat has taken Scotland closer to guaranteeing a play-off spot, Ireland are only dead, not buried.
Scotland finishing fourth is still a possibility should Ireland win a few more matches coupled with a typical Scottish end-of-qualification-campaign collapse.
3. Scotland Had A Better Squad
One final reason to be disappointed with a draw is that Scotland has, on paper, a better squad than the one they were up against on Saturday. Add to that the fact that arguably Ireland’s two best players Robbie Keane and Aidan McGeady started on the bench and Scotland should view this as a missed opportunity.
Much was made of Gordon Strachan’s starting lineup (which omitted Ikechi Anya and Andy Robertson) and rightly so. It is not false to say that Scotland didn’t give themselves the best chance of victory with the XI sent out on Saturday and the terrible first half performance that followed makes the fact that Scotland trailed at the break even more frustrating.
The FIFA World Rankings have as much credibility as, well… FIFA itself, but they do paint a half-accurate picture of the current ability of international teams. That Scotland (ranked 28th) couldn’t, therefore, see off Ireland (ranked 60th) makes the 1-1 draw a story of ‘what if’. While the Scotland squad contained eight players to have featured in European club competition last season plus past Champions League regulars like Darren Fletcher, Alan Hutton, Shaun Maloney and Steven Whittaker, Ireland’s contained just six.
That Scotland couldn’t take victory against a poorer team could prove crucial in this difficult group.
Only in October will we know how valuable or not this point in Dublin was…