Four games played, two remaining; barring a strange set of results over the next week, Ireland look set to end their League B, Group 1 campaign in mid-table obscurity.
A disappointing start to the campaign, where Stephen Kenny's side were surprisingly beaten 1-0 away in Armenia, followed up by a home defeat to Ukraine, virtually ruled out promotion to the top tier of the UEFA Nations League.
In fact, it threw this still-emerging Republic of Ireland side into a relegation scrap with the lowest ranked side, Armenia, with four games remaining to salvage the campaign and avoid the drop.
A kick-start was needed, and it arrived courtesy of a comprehensive 3-0 home win against Scotland in what was a convincing performance for Kenny’s side.
And the team followed it up away in Lodz, where they fought hard to secure a well-earned 1-1 away draw in the Polish venue, against a Ukraine side still unable to play at home as a result of the Russian invasion of their country.
The four-game blitz over ten summer nights ended on the right note, with many positives to be drawn from the final two games, from Michael Obafemi’s emergence into the international side, combined with the top-class showing of Nathan Collins in the away game against Ukraine, where a player of the match performance was topped off with a magnificent individual effort.
Ireland now sit in third place in the group ahead of this weekend’s away game in Glasgow, followed by a home fixture against Armenia on Tuesday, and provided Kenny’s men avoid a repeat of the opening result against the fourth-placed side, they should be safe from relegation.
At this stage, Ukraine look like they will top the group, however, they must play three games in a week now, as a result of their World Cup play-off involvement during the summer.
Scotland, likewise; and Steve Clarke’s side will still fancy their chances of vying for top spot in the group, as they host Ukraine on Wednesday night with the chance to move into pole position ahead of the final two games.
The Scots and Ukraine meet again in the final round of games next Tuesday night in Krakow in what might be a group decider, while the latter are expected to take full points against Armenia on Saturday.
And based on the two sides’ performances against the Irish, Ukraine would have to be seen as favourites to get the better of the Scots over two games.
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Ireland can, of course, end the group with 10 points with a victory at Hampden Park on Saturday and the Aviva Stadium three days’ later, but it would take a total collapse by Ukraine to get past a team with seven points already on the board.
Initial optimism ahead of the group, where top spot was not only an aspiration but a realistic target for the manager, but as things turned out – and assuming the team can perform close to their potential over the next seven days – it will go down as a worthwhile six-game series, looking ahead to next year’s Euro 2024 qualifying campaign.
Ireland’s next competitive game will not arrive until next March as qualifying for that Germany-hosted tournament begins, however, there should be some friendly action in November, ahead of the start of the unique winter World Cup in Qatar.
Top spot in the Nations League group would have guaranteed Ireland a back-door route to Euro 2024, however, if the 2020 process is anything to go by, Ireland will still have the option circa March of that year.
But first Kenny’s side will launch into a qualifying campaign where the top two teams automatically go through to the tournament, so the manager will surely be looking to stamp his side’s ticket to Germany through the traditional route – the draw for the qualification groups takes place in Frankfurt’s Festhalle on 9 October.
Next year’s campaign will be the third of Kenny’s entertaining and somewhat explosive reign as Ireland manager, and while he has now established a squad in his own image, and embedded a style of how to play the game according to his ball-playing, possession-based philosophy, he will surely take one real lesson into the quest for qualification.
Ireland lost their opening two games of their World Cup qualifiers, which all-but ruled them out of making it to the tournament, and they made the same mistake, getting caught cold in the opening matches of the current Nations League campaign.
"You can’t win a tournament on Thursday, but you can certainly lose it" is a well-cited mantra in the golfing world, and the same applies to the start of next year’s vital campaign, as Kenny will want his side to hit the ground running, and like their football, keep their qualification hopes on the front foot.
Follow the Republic of Ireland v Scotland this Saturday (kick-off 7.45pm) via our live blog on RTÉ.ie/sport and the RTÉ News app, watch live on RTÉ 2 and the RTÉ Player, or listen to national radio commentary on RTÉ Radio 1
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