It’s not totally beyond the realms of possibility that five teams from Britain and Ireland could qualify for the World Cup Finals in Russia next summer. With 32 nations taking part it’s almost more difficult to not qualify than progress to the main event. The World Cup will be devalued even further when the tournament involves 48 teams for the first time in 2026.
England and Scotland and Wales and the Republic of Ireland are in the same groups but all four nations could still qualify. Northern Ireland are in contention to finish second behind Germany in their group so it’s feasible for all five will be playing in Russia next year. The qualifying process is a waste of time because most of the results are predictable and the real minnows rarely qualify.
The international break spoils the flow and momentum of the early weeks of the Premier League. A better process would be to stage qualifying matches over two spells in the year before the finals. There could be qualifiers in the summer of the odd years and a further schedule of fixtures early in the year of the tournament. This qualifying process could be used for the World Cup and European Championships. The small nations could have their own group to make fixtures more competitive.
Expanding the finals to 40 or 48 teams is flawed concept. Tournaments are suited to the 16 or 32 team format with two teams qualifying from each group of four and moving on to the knockout stages. With extra 8 teams third place is good enough to get out of the group and two thirds of the matches are required to eliminate one third of the teams. Scotland love the expanded format as they have a decent chance of qualifying. In 2026 there is talk of 16 groups of three teams.
At best odds the five team match winner multiple for England, Wales, Scotland and the two Irelands pays over 7/1. The five countries have never qualified for the same World Cup. In 1958 the four home nations played in the finals in Sweden but Eire as it was known then did make the tournament. There were only 16 teams in that tournament so it was a fine achievement when one quarter of the qualifiers were from Britain and Northern Ireland. On current form three out of the five including the Republic should be playing in Russia next year. Scotland and Wales could be the teams to miss out.
England are the banker bets in this accumulator at 1/20 to beat Malta. They are 13th in the current world rankings and their hosts are at 190. There is a saying that you should never back a team at odds-on to win away from home but there are exceptions. If England do not beat Malta it will be the worst and most shameful result in their history….since losing to Iceland at Euro 2016! Lightening can’t strike twice and England will beat Malta by more than two goals.
According to the odds Wales are the most vulnerable of the five at odds-against to beat Austria at home. After the Euros that would have been a banker but things have gone slightly pear shaped. Wales’ two best players, Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey, are struggling with their clubs and the dynamism and enthusiasm of last summer is missing. Austria underachieved at the Euros but can avoid defeat in this match.
Northern Ireland will surely beat San Marino on the road and even Scotland can justify odds-on quotes with a win in Lithuania. The Republic have a tough match in Georgia but can come home with the points. Four of the five teams in the multiple are fancied to win but Wales can get the bookies out of a hole by failing to beat Austria in Cardiff.