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Why Ireland need to avoid defeat in the first leg if they want to make it to Euro 2016

by Rob Dore | November 11, 2015

As Ireland head to Bosnia & Herzegovina this Friday for their Euro 2016 play-off we take a look at how important it is to get a positive result in the first leg.

It’s not impossible to lose the first leg of an international play-off and still win but history tells us that the odds will not be in your favour.

Only one team in the hallowed history of European Championship play-offs, stretching as far back as 1999 when Britney Spears was making grown men feel a little uncomfortable, has lost the first leg and pulled it back in the second. The Netherlands lost 1-0 to Scotland in 2003, ahead of Euro 2004, but won the second leg 6-0 to breeze through as easily as they were expected to.

The Republic of Ireland and the Netherlands did face off in a play-off for Euro ’96 but it was just the one leg, played at Anfield. So it’s not being counted in the context of this piece.

First Impressions

Of the thirteen teams which have qualified for the European Championships through a play-off, eight won their first leg, four drew the first leg and, as mentioned above, only one team lost.

Those who won the first leg are evenly split, four won away from home and four won at home.

It’s the same with the four teams who drew the first leg. Two were at home and two were away.

Which suggests that it doesn’t really matter whether you play the first leg at home or away, only that you avoid defeat. Unless you’re the Netherlands, back when they weren’t terrible.

The good news for Ireland fans is that of the five two-legged play-offs they’ve been involved in for the European Championships and the World Cup they’ve only lost the first leg once, against France. They did go on and win the second leg 1-0 over the 90 minutes only for Thierry Henry to commit one of the most heinous acts of cheating the world has ever seen. Including Boris Onischenko, the 1919 Chicago White Sox, every Russian athlete and the coughing guy from Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.

No Glory In Defeat

Some pundits have expressed the opinion that a 2-1 defeat in the first leg wouldn’t be a bad result. They’re wrong. Ireland realistically need to avoid defeat against Bosnia & Herzegovina in Zenica to stand a chance of qualifying.

The teams that drew in the first leg and progressed did so with scores of 0-0 or 1-1. Ireland finding themselves on the wrong end of one of those results in 1999 when they drew 1-1 at home against Turkey but went out on away goals after a 0-0 away draw in the second leg.

A 0-0 draw in this game is with a 1-1 draw at . The latter would be the preferred choice for the away goal. Ireland and the draw is 8/11.

No team has ever won away from home in the first leg and then failed to progress in either European Championship or the World Cup qualifiers (UEFA nations from 1998 World Cup onwards). So a win for Ireland at would all but guarantee them a place in France next summer.

A 1-0 win for Ireland at 17/2 is the most likely winning outcome although it would have to include a bit of luck and a lot of frantic defending.

Taking a quick look at World Cup play-offs, of the twenty ties since 1997 only twice have teams lost the first leg but managed to turn things around in the second leg. On both occasions the team lost away from home (Slovenia against Russia in 2009 and France against Ukraine in 2013). A small glimmer of hope for Ireland should they lose on Friday.

The two teams have played before, a largely meaningless friendly in Dublin in 2012 which the home side won 1-0 thanks to a Shane Long goal. Long looks set to miss the game in Bosnia, setting up the possibility of him being the hero in Dublin if the first game ends all square. Let’s take it one leg at a time though.

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