Spain loom as potential Irish opposition in Euro 2020 group
Ireland's potential group at the 2020 European Championships they are jointly hosting has become clearer with Spain confirmed as one of the three opposition nations.
That picture began to emerge when UEFA announced the partnership of Dublin and Bilbao amongst the six pairs of cities at the new-look pan-European tournament.
Brussels was to be the 13th city in the arrangement only for the proposed new venue at the site of the old Heysel Stadium to be removed due to delays in construction.
Should Ireland progress from the qualifiers taking place from March to October 2019, or through the UEFA Nations League play-offs in March 2020, then they're guaranteed to have at least two of the three group games at Lansdowne Road.
It is believed, however, that their match against top seeds Spain will be held at the San Mamés Stadium, the home of Athletic Bilbao.
All six matches of Group E will be contested in Spain or Ireland but, traditionally, UEFA afford preference to the higher-seeded of the nations, meaning the Spanish - champions in 2008 and 2012 - will have home advantage.
Ireland have lost both the previous meetings at major tournaments, in the 2002 World Cup and Euro 2016, but manager Martin O'Neill captained the Northern Ireland team which shocked hosts Spain by winning 1-0 in Valencia at the 1982 World Cup.
The identity of the other two nations in Group E won't be discovered until the UEFA Nations League play-offs are completed but Ireland know 10 nations they won't be facing until at least the group stages.
If they qualify, all of the host countries (see panel) will be in different groups to Ireland and Spain, thus avoiding the likes of England, Italy, Germany and Scotland.
Ireland could, again assuming they negotiate a path from their pool, end up meeting Belgium or Wales.
The qualification path to reach a third Euros in succession will commence following the draw in England this week next year.
Whether Ireland feature in Pot Two or Three is to be determined by the outcome of their UEFA Nations League group taking place between September and November of 2018.
Yesterday's meeting in Nyon of the UEFA executive committee, which FAI supremo John Delaney is now part of, also rubberstamped the pots for that draw to be held in Lausanne, Switzerland on January 24.
Based on Ireland's ranking in Europe of 19th, they have been placed in Pot Two of League B alongside Sweden, Ukraine and Bosnia-Herzegovina, leaving open the possibility of drawing Celtic cousins Wales and Northern Ireland in their three-nation group.
Nations face each other home and away, and Ireland need to top their mini-group after six games to be assured of figuring in the second pot of seeds for the European qualifiers.
Twenty teams - the top two from each of the 10 groups - progress to the Euros and will be joined by four others from the back-door route of the UEFA Nations League play-offs.
It is a journey to a tournament like nothing previous.
The complicated structure was an unintentional parting gift from disgraced UEFA president Michel Platini before he incurred a four-year ban for an ethics breach arising from a €1.7m "disloyal payment" by then FIFA president Sepp Blatter in 2015.
While the Frenchman cited the common good for scrapping the long-standing model of one or two countries hosting the tournament, this format is already attracting criticism for the qualification restrictions it features.
UEFA insisted yesterday's pairings were conducted randomly, albeit established on the "basis of sporting strength and geographical considerations".
This could easily explain why the countries in each pairing - for example Italy and Azerbaijan - seemed to be in different subsets of the footballing hierarchy.
"These host city pairings marks an exciting chapter in the build-up to the European Championships, which will see Dublin and Ireland hosting the biggest ever sporting event to take place in our country," said Delaney.
"A huge amount of work has gone into preparation for the tournament and we are making enormous progress in preparing our stadium for when it becomes a focus for worldwide attention during this prestigious competition."
Meanwhile, Burnley boss Sean Dyche has confirmed surgery on Robbie Brady's knee on Wednesday was successful.
The Ireland winger suffered a season-ending torn patellar tendon during the first half of Saturday's 1-0 defeat to Leicester City.
"The surgeon, who has done most of our players, was very happy with the work that was done," said Dyche.
Dyche also confirmed Jon Walters, the Ireland striker who could retire from international football shortly, stepped up his comeback from his own knee injury by playing 50 minutes of an in-house friendly on Tuesday.
Euro 2020 host cities
Group A: Rome and Baku
Gr B: S Petersburg and Copenhagen
Gr C: Amsterdam and Bucharest
Gr D: London and Glasgow
Gr E: Bilbao and Dublin
Gr F: Munich and Budapest
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