Tough start for Republic as hosts Qatar join group
STEPHEN Kenny has not been dealt the best of hands for the Republic of Ireland's 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign, while Northern Ireland's fate will be decided by double-headers in October and November.
The Republic face an opening trip to Serbia, the side most likely to challenge for second place in Group A, which now surprisingly includes hosts Qatar.
They will play friendly games against the five teams in the pool in order to prepare for the tournament, mimicking the move made by France ahead of the 2016 World Cup.
Ireland's game with the Asian hosts, which will be played somewhere in Europe, will be three days after they visit Qatar's neighbours Azerbaijan in October.
In terms of qualifiers, though, the opener against Serbia followed by a home tie against Luxembourg represents a difficult start for a team that has not scored a goal in over 11 hours of football.
The early part of Kenny's reign has been besieged by injuries and Covid-19 complications that have undermined his attempts to build a team for qualifying.
The Irish will travel to Portugal before hosting Azerbaijan and Serbia in September.
The Portuguese come to the Aviva on November 11 before Ireland finish their campaign with a potentially decisive tie in Luxembourg.
Ian Baraclough's Northern Ireland side have a daunting Group C opener away to Italy, but they will host both Bulgaria (March 28) and Switzerland (September 8) in the National Stadium before the halfway point.
They will then travel to both in the space of three days in October before finishing at home to Lithuania (November 12) and the Italians (November 15).
England will launch their Group I campaign with a home game against Group I minnows San Marino on March 25 and three days later will travel to play in Albania.
The Three Lions will then play their home fixture against Poland on March 31 and must then wait just over five months before their next qualifying game, in Hungary on September 2.
Two qualifiers follow for Gareth Southgate's side in September, with two more in October before their last home game against Albania on November 12 is followed by their final match in San Marino on November 15.
Scotland, in Group F alongside Denmark, Austria, Israel, Faroe Islands and Moldova, open their qualifying campaign at home against Austria on March 25 before travelling to play Israel three days later.
Steve Clarke's side will make their final qualifying trip to Moldova on November 12 and will conclude their group games against Denmark at home on November 15.
Wales, drawn in Group E with Belgium, the Czech Republic, Belarus and Estonia, begin their qualifiers in Belgium on March 24, take on the Czech Republic in their first home game on March 30 and face Belgium in their final qualifier at home on November 16.
Republic of Ireland fixtures
March 24: Serbia v Ireland
March 27: Ireland v Luxembourg
March 30: Ireland v Qatar (friendly)
September 1: Portugal v Ireland
September 4: Ireland v Azerbaijan
September 7: Ireland v Serbia
October 9: Azerbaijan v Ireland
October 12: Qatar v Ireland
November 11: Ireland v Portugal
November 14: Luxembourg v Ireland
Northern Ireland fixtures
March 25: Italy v Northern Ireland
March 28: Northern Ireland v Bulgaria
September 2: Lithuania v Northern Ireland
September 8: Northern Ireland v Switzerland
October 9: Switzerland v Northern Ireland
October 12: Bulgaria v Northern Ireland
November 12: Northern Ireland v Lithuania
November 15: Northern Ireland v Italy