A few weeks back I suggested that if Stephen Kenny restores Ireland's ELO ranking it will be a job well done.
The COVID-19 crisis presents the new manager with an unusual challenge to begin with but maybe he has received a gift from the World Cup 2022 organisers. This gift comes in the form of the yet to be drawn ‘Group J’ for the forthcoming qualifying campaign.
To explain, for the last three FIFA World Cup qualification (UEFA) phases there was nine groups. For the 2022 qualification phase there is now an extra group. The major implication of the tenth group - ‘Group J’ - is that there must be ten rather than nine teams per seeding pot (one to five).
Assuming previous polices are maintained by the organisers - determining seeding on the FIFA World Ranking from July three years prior to the Finals - Kenny's Republic of Ireland will scrape in at the bottom of Pot 2 (ranked 20th).
Notwithstanding that there are still strong teams in Pot 3 (see the hypothetical ranking below), the main advantage is that Ireland will avoid a ‘Group of Death’. This will feature a top seed and most likely the Netherlands.
What if the July 2019 rankings are not used to define the seeding? The good news for the Republic of Ireland is that if the ratings either side of July 2019 determine pots, the country will maintain a second placed position. If the June 2019 rankings are applied the Dutch will still be in Pot 2 but, interestingly, if September 2019 rankings are used Germany will be a Pot 2 team. The Danes and Swiss have upset the apple cart recently so the 'Group of Death' most likely will have the Dutch, but could have the Germans or maybe the Italians - UEFA/FIFA do have form for changing tack on competition design.
For the last World Cup, the Republic of Ireland were drawn from Pot 4 and we were seeded in Pot 3 for World Cup 2010 and 2014. Lower seeding obviously makes qualification more difficult, particularly when there are only 13 UEFA places on offer to the now 55 entrants. Getting to the World Cup is becoming harder as the relative number of places for UEFA has fallen.
A Pot 2 seed won’t guarantee qualification but it is a slice of luck for Kenny. 'Group J' may have just made our likely battle for a play-off spot slightly easier. Lets hope the designers maintain the status quo in relation to their seeding policy. All will be revealed on 29th November 2020 when the draw takes place.