IF, FOR some inexplicable reason, Uefa were to end the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign right now, Scotland would be through as the best third-placed team from the nine groups. That’s the good news. As things stand, Gordon Strachan’s side are on course to make it to their first major finals since 1998.
In reality, the show goes on, and Scotland cannot presume that more of the same in the second half of the campaign will be enough to secure that last automatic qualifying slot. As the Uefa.com guide to qualifying points out, standings are provisional until all group matches have been played and in any case, the qualifying criteria are tortuously complex.
The simple facts are as follows. Twenty-four teams will compete at Euro 2016. Hosts France, the nine group winners, the nine runners-up, the best third-placed team, and the winners of the four play-offs between the other eight third-placed teams. With 53 countries in the qualifying campaign, close to 50 per cent of entrants will make it into the finals.
In that sense, qualification has never been easier. In reality, Scotland are part of a tight four-way fight to squeeze through the Group D bottleneck.
Poland’s draw in Dublin on Sunday night leaves them just a point clear at the top, with Germany and Scotland second and third on ten points and Ireland fourth on eight. That draw has two potential advantages for Scotland, having pulled the Poles back into the pack while also leaving Ireland very vulnerable.
If Scotland win in the republic in June – and, admittedly, that’s a big if – they will be five points clear of the Irish with four games to play. Provided they win away against the two also-rans, Georgia in September and Gibraltar the following month, that will almost certainly be enough to knock Ireland out of contention. The downside of the campaign so far has been the failure to come back from Germany with at least a point.
Poland claimed a historic victory over the world champions in Warsaw and Ireland got a draw with them in Gelsenkirchen. A point at home to the Germans in October would go a long way to redressing that imbalance.
The smart money is still on Germany qualifying as group winners, and it would then be no surprise if Poland and Scotland, who drew 2-2 back in October, finished level on points. In that event, the head-to-head record would determine who became runners-up but, if the Hampden match this October is also a draw, that would give them two points apiece.
Neither team would be ahead on goal difference over those two games, which is the next criterion. Nor would one have scored more than the other in the head to head. Away goals in the two games would then be brought into play, giving Scotland the edge if they draw 0-0 or 1-1 at home.
When it comes to deciding which is the best third-placed team from the nine groups, the head-to-head record cannot apply. If two or more teams are level on points, goal difference determines the outcome.