The countdown is on to Ireland's crucial play-off against Slovakia.
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It perhaps sums up the dog’s dinner UEFA has made of Euro 2020 qualification that it took until 20th December before Ireland fans were told where the semi-final play-off would be held against Slovakia.

The new National Stadium in Bratislava, or Tehelné pole to the locals, is open, polished and ready to go, but the Slovaks played all their qualifying games in Trnava, about 50km outside Bratislava (think of it as a kind of Slovakian of Drogheda, but with superior and cheaper beer), so obviously it’s important for fans to get this information as soon as possible. 

The game will take place on 26th March, with kick-off scheduled for 18:45pm (GMT). At the same time, Northern Ireland will be playing Bosnia and Herzegovina, with the two winners getting to meet in the final a few days later. The Republic will again be away from home in their quest to reach the finals.

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Slovakia only marginally backed by bookies

Now that the complicated stuff is out of the way, we can address the difficult task; namely, beating Slovakia. Now, a lot has been made about the fact that it’s an away tie, with the perception that Ireland struggle away from the Aviva. That’s part of the reason that bookmakers are shying away from an Ireland victory. We found Ireland priced at 11/5 for a win in the online football betting with 888, compared to Slovakia’s 5/4. However, on further investigation, we found that the odds for each team to qualify, Ireland 6/5, Slovakia 4/6 – looks much tighter. 

Indeed, while there was a lot of groans about Ireland’s away form, it really hasn’t been too bad in the last few years. And, crucially, the team was able to pull out performances when it mattered. For instance, the wins against Austria and Wales during the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign. Those are exactly the sort of performances that will need to be replicated in Slovakia in the spring. 

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An ambitious Ireland could pressurise Slovak defence

As for the opposition, they should be shown respect, but perhaps not too much respect. Slovakia had a tough little group in qualifying, but they collected 12 of their 13 points – and the vast majority of their 13 goals – against Azerbaijan and Hungary. They also let in quite a few goals too: 11 in eight games. An ambitious performance from Ireland, like we saw in the second half versus Denmark, and they could punish the Slovak defence. 

But this is a tough match to call, and if you like your stats to provide an answer, you will be disheartened to find that there is nothing at all between the teams. Slovakia stand 31st in a statistical ranking of Euro 2020 teams based on results and goal difference, and Ireland stand in 32nd place with exactly the same goal difference. 

It will call for a big performance in Bratislava. But Irish boss Mick McCarthy has seen his share of play-off action in his previous spell as Irish boss. He’ll be hoping he can use some of that experience to good effect. If the team can replicate the performance against Denmark, Irish fans could yet start to dream of qualification for Euro 2020 in the summer, including home advantage and a likely extraordinary atmosphere in Dublin.