With Ireland’s crucial Euro 2016 play-off first leg with Bosnia & Herzegovina tonight, I thought it timely to have a closer look at some of the data behind UEFA play-off matches.
If any nation can claim to be more at home with the concept of the play-off, surely that's Ireland. Fifty years ago, the country’s place at the 1966 World Cup in England was decided by a play-off in Paris against Spain (we lost). Fast-forward thirty years and Jack Charlton’s legendary reign as Irish manager comes to an end following a play-off defeat to the Netherlands at Anfield in November 1995. Twenty years on again and the country faces it eighth opponent!
The concept of the play-off has changed since the early days and now involves two-legged ties, home and away for both teams. This format started when deciding UEFA qualification to the 1998 World Cup in France. Since then, thirty-seven play-offs have taken place involving UEFA members, including Ireland’s famous UEFA/AFC Intercontinental play-off win over Iran in 2001 and the four ties this weekend. Thirty-three UEFA members have been involved in play-off matches since that time. The list includes Spain, Italy, Germany, France and England. No prizes for guessing who tops the number of matches played. (Republic of Ireland finally top a league table).
What can we learn from past matches?
Home or Away First?
There is a belief that playing at home in the second leg increases the chances of qualification. The Republic of Ireland experience this for just the second time. The only other time the country played at home second was when beating Estonia 5-1 on aggregate. It seemed to work then, although qualification for World Cup 2002 was secured playing at home first against Iran, followed by an away leg in Teheran. Is this scenario replicated across other play-offs?
No. The current score is 16 – 17. Sixteen countries have qualified for European Champions and World Cups having to play the second leg of their play-off tie away from home.
Seeded or non-seeded?
Seeding has been used since the 2006 World Cup play-off matches and has been used for all play-offs since. The seeded teams do have a better chance of qualifying.
Fifteen ties have involved seeding. Eleven times the seeded team has qualified. Only Switzerland (World Cup 2006), Slovenia (World Cup 2010), Portugal and France (both World Cup 2014) have overcome the odds.
The First Leg?
There are some interesting facts regarding the first leg. Only three times has the home team won the first leg and not gone onto qualify - Scotland Euro 2004; Russia World Cup 2010 and Ukraine World Cup 2014. Interestingly both Russia and Ukraine were seeded teams. If Ireland lose tonight it's not the end of the world. Ukraine were 2 - 0 winners against France in November 2013 and still failed to qualify for the World Cup in Brazil.
On an even more positive note, no away team has ever won the first leg and not gone onto qualify. After last night, it would appear Norway are all but eliminated. If they do qualify, it will be a first for a UEFA team. If the Republic of Ireland win tonight you can book your ticket for France, unless of course the country become the first in the history of the play-offs to blow an away win in the first leg.
Being at home second we can confine this analysis to the seventeen successful countries that played away first. Eight wins, six draw and three defeats were achieved. The second leg is more positive with twelve wins, four draws and only one defeat on the records. England beat Scotland 2-0 in Glasgow in the first leg of a Euro 2000 play-off and were beaten 1-0 in the return leg; the only home defeat for a qualifying country while playing away first. It was still enough to secure their place at Euro 2000.
A draw is what many see as good enough tonight. It may well be. Six times a draw has been good enough for the away team in the first leg. Croatia and Russia have even qualified on the back on 0-0 draws.
A word of caution on the draw however. On three occasions Slovenia (1-1), Wales and Ukraine (both 0-0) returned home level after the first leg, hoping to finish the job, only to be dumped out in front of their own fans, with all three beaten 1-0 at home.