by Robbie Butler and John Eakins
TIME IS TICKING by and with our upcoming friendly against the Czech Republic just around the corner we decided to take a closer look at our knock-out phase qualification chances come the start of the Euro 2012.
Whilst most would agree being in the same group as the current world and European champions makes this one of the toughest of the four groups drawn, many would also argue that qualification is still a real possibility.
A key question, if we are to get out of the group, is how many points do we need?
Since the European Championships expanded to 16 teams in 1996, the average number of points accumulated by group winners has been 7.56. Second-placed teams have, on average, collected just shy of five points (4.875 to be exact). Following this logic, five points or more are probably needed to advance.
Since the Euros went to 16, only once has a team accumulated five points and not qualified.
Italy have the misfortune of holding this record and can blame Bulgaria (for losing all their group games) and a Scandinavian alliance of Sweden and Denmark, who conveniently played out a two-all draw in their final group game, having known before the game, that such a result would ensure qualification for both to the knockout stages, regardless of what the Italians did.
An alternative way of looking at this question is to identify all the possible outcomes of a four team group and then calculate the number of times a given number of points guarantees qualification. Collectively the teams in Group C could end up with a minimum of 12 points (all matches end in draws) or a maximum of 18 points (all matches end in wins with one team winning three, the next winning two, the next winning one and the final team winning none) between them.
A little bit of number crunching indicates that there are an incredible 729 possible outcomes in total for a four-team group where each team plays each other only once. The figures suggest that Ireland, Croatia, Italy or Spain are guaranteed to be in the top two of their if they get seven points or more.
Amazingly, teams have the same chance of qualification by accumulating either five or six points. Either outcome ensures guaranteed qualification 96.30% of the time, with the remaining 3.70% representing situations where two (or more) teams are tied on the same number of points and qualification is decided by UEFA rules (according to the UEFA website it appears that it is the number of points obtained in the matches among the teams in question is the first set of criteria).
The fact that it doesn’t matter whether teams have five or six points can be explained by the relative difference in pay-offs of three points for a win and one for a draw.
Quite good: world and European champions Spain. Pic: Martin Meissner/AP/Press Association Images
Qualification gets increasingly less likely however when we move to a total number of points of less than five. Managing to gather just four would guarantee qualification a little over a quarter of the time (27.78%).
With four points, there is a greater chance (54.32%) of two (or more) teams vying for qualification, being tied on the same number of points. Moreover, elimination is possible with four points 17.90% of the time. Managing to win just three points in the group makes qualification very difficult. Guaranteed qualification to the next phase will occur just 3.70% of the time with a further 13.89% chance of qualification from having a better record than a team with the same points.
Elimination occurs in more than four out of five cases when a team has three points. On two points, it is still possible to qualify but only situations where the team is level on points and qualifies via UEFA rules. This occurs less than 4% of the time. An early flight home is guaranteed for any team with one or no points after the group games.
What the statistics suggest is that a win in one of our three games is a minimum requirement for qualification. A draw in one of the other games would then leave us with at least four points and in a reasonable position to qualify. This should be an achievable target for the Boys in Green, but five points or more would be ideal.
There are four ways the Irish squad can achieve this return.
Trapattoni watches his Italy side at the Euros in 2004. They failed to qualify with five points. Tony Marshall/EMPICS Sport
Win all our games, which is highly unlikely. Win two and draw one, which is improbable. Win two and lose one, which is possible but difficult. Lastly, win once and draw the other two, which of all outcomes probably represents our best chance of qualification. Thus, a loss in any game will potentially be a knockout blow to achieving the magic total of five points.
Trapattoni must aim to avoid such a scenario in the opening game to get off to a good start. Otherwise this Irish team will have to do the unthinkable and achieve something no other Irish team has done before – win twice in the group stages of a major competition!
One final interesting point to note. Italy exited Euro 2004 on five points, an outcome that should occur less than 4% of the time. The Italian manager at Euro 2004? One Giovanni Trapattoni.
Surely, he’s due some luck at these finals.
Robbie Butler, an Economics lecturer at University College Cork, has written extensively on soccer economics. Check out some that here.
This piece was co-authored by John Eakins.