There was a chance during the group stages that all four British teams and Ireland would qualify for the same World Cup for the first time. Ultimately, only England progressed automatically and Wales and Scotland fell by the wayside. The two Irelands could still be playing in Russia but they must come through the playoffs to make the World Cup finals. Northern Ireland have drawn Switzerland while the Republic must beat Denmark over two legs to qualify.
Croatia should be too strong for Greece while Italy’s pedigree and quality should be enough to deal with Sweden. However, form under such pressure is not an exact science and at least one favourite could lose the playoffs over home and away matches. Four of the eight sides progress to the World Cup Finals where 32 teams are involved. This is the perfect number of teams in a knockout tournament and extending the World Cup to include 40 teams is a mistake.
That extension for the 2026 tournament will give the smaller nations a better chance of qualifying but the quality would be diluted. A world championship is supposed to bring together the best teams playing competitively. If there are too many minnows the tournament is devalued. Waters are muddied by teams finishing third in the groups progressing to the knockout stages. There will be more poor matches when a team can get out of the group by finishing third.
When England won the World Cup in 1966 only 16 teams appeared in the finals. That number increased to 24 teams for the 1982 tournament and the World Cup was expanded to 32 teams in 1994. Further expansion would increase the number of places available to those outside Europe so the African and Asian federations are all for it. FIFA would be keeping more members happy but the World Cup would suffer as a spectacle but that would not bother the men in suits.
Northern Ireland have not qualified for the World Cup finals since 1986 when they did not make the knockout stages. They reached the second round four years earlier and progressed to the quarter-finals the only other time they qualified which was in 1958. They did play at Euro 2016 but that tournament had the 24 team format so Northern Ireland made the last 16 after finishing third in their group.
They are 23rd in the FIFA world rankings but playoff opponents Switzerland are 11th so beating that nation over two matches will be tough. The first leg is in Belfast this Thursday and the home side need a two goal lead at least to take into the return fixture but they might have to settle for a draw. However, that means elimination would be on the cards.
The Republic have the advantage of playing their second match in the playoff tie with Denmark at home. A defeat by one goal in the away fixture would not be a bad result and set up the second leg nicely. Ireland have a great chance of qualifying for the World Cup for the first time since 2002 when they progressed to the round of the last 16. They are seven places below Denmark in the world rankings but that is surmountable so the Republic can join England in the finals.