I was not a fan of a 24-team European Championship, because it makes qualification from the group phase both too complex and too fortuitous (as was the case with the 1986, 1990 and 1994 World Cups, played under the same format).
Nevertheless, I did work out that three points may well be enough to advance. I also reckoned they were likeliest to come against Ukraine, so I took it upon myself as a keen fan of football, languages and roads to, er, drive to the match and back…
Good calls so far, but let us say the Northern Irish lose narrowly to world champions Germany… who else should we be supporting to sneak through to the last sixteen (thus proving we would have qualified for a sixteen-team tournament anyway)?
Basically, the GAWA army would need at least two third-placed teams to have a worse record than Northern Ireland (let’s assume Northern Ireland has three points and an even goal difference).
Group A looks hopeful. A draw between Romania and Albania would mean neither made it to three points. A narrow Albania win would also probably help, given its goal difference would remain inferior to Northern Ireland’s.
And a narrow Albania win it was – meaning Northern Ireland can afford to lose by up to three goals and still be ahead of the Albanians. One down, one to go!
Group B is less helpful. Wales and Slovakia both already have three points; Wales plays Russia and one or other of those teams, plus England, must end up with more than three. The only hope, really, is that Wales gets some sort of result (eliminating Russia) and that England thrashes Slovakia, weakening its goal difference.
Didn’t expect much from Group B, and got even less! Slovakia third with four points, meaning Northern Ireland need a draw to progress for sure. Interestingly, the likeliest opponent upon progressing would now be Wales!
If Romania doesn’t win and England does, it is possible Northern Ireland will already know that a certain margin of defeat will already suffice to progress.
So, the precise basis of this blog post has happened – thanks to Big Mike Shovel Hands Northern Ireland lost 1-0, and thankfully only 1-0!
Group D also carries some hope, with the Czechs and Turks playing each other. As with Romania-Albania, a draw would mean neither reached three points (so it is already the case, as it stands, that if both the Romania-Albania and Czech-Turkey games are drawn, Northern Ireland will progress). A win for Turkey would mean three points but, probably, an inferior goal difference to Northern Ireland (though the Turks will by this stage have the advantage of knowing the margin they need at least to have some chance of going through) – we now know Turkey would in fact have to win by four. A Czech win, however, would mean this group carried no more interest!
… and Turkey wins by two goals! Last 16 it is for bravest team and best fans in the tournament!
Group E was also hopeful. In this case, the bottom two teams are not playing each other. If neither Sweden nor the Republic of Ireland win, then neither reaches three points; if either does, it secures at least four points. A Swedish win would leave Belgium on three points, but possibly with a better goal difference (there were several reasons for Irish fans north of the border to curse Belgium’s big win yesterday).
We hoped it would not come down to Group F (although actually it concludes before Group E). Appearances were deceptive here, because there is a fair possibility that both Portugal and Austria will win thus taking three teams to beyond four points; even if this does not happen, the third-placed team will have at least three points, barring an unlikely Hungarian win over Portugal.
Who next? If Republic of Ireland and/or Sweden win and Portugal does not lose, it is Wales v Northern Ireland; otherwise, it is France v Northern Ireland.
Congratulations regardless to Michael O’Neill and his team.