Northern Ireland have achieved their highest ever FIFA world ranking of 22nd, though they may still face a daunting task if they reach the play-offs for World Cup qualification.
Four years and 10 months ago Michael O’Neill was three games into his reign when the game’s governing body published standings which saw them plummet to a new low of 129th, below Niger, Turkmenistan and New Caledonia.
In the rankings published on Thursday they were 107 places better off, 10 spots above the Netherlands, having beaten both New Zealand and Azerbaijan last month.
The victory over Azerbaijan in Baku leaves the Northern Irish with a four-point cushion in second spot in their World Cup qualification group ahead of September’s double header with San Marino and the Czech Republic.
Though it is assumed world champions Germany will win the group, the Northern Irish could guarantee second, and a likely play-off spot, with just a draw against the Czechs in Belfast if results in the previous round of fixtures go their way.
And with the eight best second-placed teams from the nine groups going through to the play-offs, O’Neill’s side would stand an excellent chance of being just a two-legged tie away from reaching their first World Cup finals since 1986.
However, the draw for those play-offs will be seeded based on world rankings at the time, as it was for the 2014 tournament.
So although Northern Ireland are currently one of the eight best second-placed teams, there are four nations still above them in the latest world rankings, meaning they would be unseeded for that play-off draw.
Were it to be made today, the Northern Irish would face either Euro 2016 champions Portugal, that tournament’s beaten finalists France, 2006 world champions Italy or England’s recent conquerors Iceland.
Of the other three teams that would be unseeded – Slovakia, the Republic of Ireland and Greece – only the Slovaks are ranked above Northern Ireland in 21st.
There is therefore a chance O’Neill’s team could secure a seeding for the play-offs if they get there, but they would need results to go their way in the other groups and ensure they ended their own qualification campaign strongly.
That means the visit of the top-ranked Germans to Belfast in October takes on extra significance, even if Joachim Low’s side have secured their passage to Russia at that point, as the ‘strength of opposing team’ is a criteria that FIFA uses to calculate its world rankings.