Tuesday 17 July 2018

Incentives give stock to Nations League

Martin O’Neill can decide on Wednesday whether to concentrate solely on the implications of the UEFA Nations League draw or also explain the events of the last few months. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Martin O’Neill can decide on Wednesday whether to concentrate solely on the implications of the UEFA Nations League draw or also explain the events of the last few months. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Colin Young

Martin O'Neill may have to go on a charm offensive this week, but if he repeats his claim that he and Roy Keane are "excited" at the prospect of Uefa's new Nations League, he could be on to something.

It looks and sounds like an over-complicated pain in the backside for international managers, who have enough concerns with World Cup and European Championship qualifying campaigns. But study it carefully and the new competition comes with serious incentives and a back door to the Euro 2020 finals.

Uefa's plan to avoid meaningless friendlies and create a more competitive edge to international games outside of the qualifying cycle has been six years in the making. This autumn, rather than seeing the start of the Euro 2020 qualifying campaign, games will be played in a new four-tier league.

No more friendlies. Keane, the Ireland captain who announced during his Saipan tirade that he "didn't do friendlies", has his wish as a coach. With time on his hands, O'Neill's assistant, in his attempts to keep his boss from straying to Stoke, must have read, digested and understood the complex and lengthy route to the European Championship finals in two years' time and liked it.

The friendlies away to Turkey in March and in Paris in May, as part of France's World Cup finals preparations, will be a dying breed for Ireland, although the occasional out-of-season trip to the United States will remain on the FAI calendar and there will still be other dates to fill.

The Uefa Nations League is not straightforward but Europe's governing body had to devise a plausible competition and they have allocated four places in the 2020 European Championship finals to maintain everyone's interests.

Uefa have split the 55 nations into four mini-leagues which are split into three-team groups. The first round of games will be played this September, October and November. The top four in each group will play in the Final Four tournament in summer 2019.

And this is where the results from the autumn games become so relevant. The results are combined and the top four in each league are promoted and the bottom four relegated for the resumption of the Nations League in March 2019, which runs through to November 2019. The top four teams in League A will compete in the Nations League Finals in June 2021.

Then, the best four teams in each league, who have not qualified for the Euro 2020 finals automatically through the traditional qualifying format, will play a knock-out play-off in March 2020. The four play-off final winners from each league gain a place in the Euro 2020 finals. Yes, that includes League D.

O'Neill and Keane will be on hand to explain all this to the Irish media when they resume hostilities in the land of neutrality on Wednesday when the pair travel to Lausanne for the inaugural Nations League draw.

Ireland will be drawn into a group of three from Pot 2 - avoid Sweden, Ukraine and Bosnia-Herzegovina - and they could face Austria, Wales, Russia or Slovakia from Pot 1 while Northern Ireland, Denmark, Czech Republic or Turkey await in Pot 3.

Either tomorrow or Tuesday, O'Neill and Keane will sign their new deals to stay on as the Republic of Ireland management duo. On Wednesday, after the draw, when asked for his thoughts, O'Neill can decide whether to concentrate on its implications alone, or also explain the events of the last few months and his commitment to the Ireland job. He knows the questions will come.

The inclination to side-step the issues for now, and address them in more secure environs, will be helped by the result of the draw.

O'Neill might just fancy a 'Celtic Nations' re-run with Wales and Northern Ireland. He will be keen to avoid Denmark, for obvious reasons, and we've seen enough of Austria for a while, but he won't be fazed by Russia or Slovakia, Czech Republic or Turkey.

The March trip to the Turkish resort of Antalya offers O'Neill the opportunity to fulfil the pledge he made last week to blood young players into his evolving squad. Wes Hoolahan, John O'Shea, Glenn Whelan and Daryl Murphy will have conversations with the Ireland manager about their international intentions as the young spine of his squad gains more league experience.

Darren Randolph is secure as number one with Ireland and Middlesbrough. Keiren Westwood and Rob Elliot have both been injured recently but are fit now.

Cyrus Christie's lack of action since the arrival of Tony Pulis at Middlesbrough - and the inability to hurl throw-ins as far as Ryan Shotton (and Rory Delap) - could offer Matt Doherty his deserved first cap at right-back. Doherty can also play at left-back, which is an area of concern in the absence of Robbie Brady and if Stephen Ward's recent injury needs long-term and careful management. Greg Cunningham is fit and playing again at Preston, and Enda Stevens has hardly missed a game for Sheffield United.

Richard Keogh has been outstanding in Derby's promotion surge under Gary Rowett and Shane Duffy and Ciaran Clark have been equally consistent for Brighton and Newcastle respectively. West Ham's Declan Rice has to be selected but it may be too soon for Hammers team-mate Josh Cullen. Brentford's John Egan comes into the reckoning.

The central midfield roles are well covered and up for grabs. Harry Arter, Jeff Hendrick and Conor Hourihane are playing regularly but it is the return of James McCarthy which will be most welcome. The departure of Ronald Koeman and arrival of Sam Allardyce at Everton offers the opportunity to resume cordial relations at a club with deep Irish roots. Allardyce's early acknowledgement of McCarthy and Seamus Coleman had been encouraging news for O'Neill. However, the former's horror leg break against West Brom yesterday - eerily reminiscent of his team-mate's compound fracture against Wales last year - will have all but wiped out McCarthy's hopes for 2018.

On the plus side, Stephen Ireland is back in the team at Stoke. . .

In the Championship, Leeds pair Eunan O'Kane and Conor Shaughnessy will be very close, along with Reading's 22-year-old midfielder Liam Kelly. Callum O'Dowda, who started the season so well for Bristol City and breezed through his competitive Ireland debut, is coming back from a lengthy lay-off. Preston's Alan Browne has moved ahead of Daryl Horgan and Andy Boyle at Deepdale, and defender Kevin O'Connor is another name to add to Alex Neil's Irish list. David Meyler is still waiting for a run in the side under new Hull boss Nigel Adkins.

James McClean is still in and out of the team at West Brom but has started a few games under new manager Alan Pardew. The same could be said of Aiden McGeady and Chris Coleman at Sunderland, but Darron Gibson was in very good form for the Welshman until his groin popped.

Shane Long's long wait for a goal is finally over and manager Mauricio Pellegrino kept faith before that. Sean Maguire is still injured but Scott Hogan has scored twice for Aston Villa since Christmas, ending his long drought.

David McGoldrick is back in the Ipswich side but O'Neill has looked elsewhere before and Millwall's Aiden O'Brien, who is more to his liking, celebrated the new year with three goals in two games.

And then there is Coleman, a captain so sorely missed and getting closer to a return from the broken leg sustained on Ireland duty in the goalless draw with Wales. There is no doubt he will be welcomed back with open arms by O'Neill and Keane.

UEFA NATIONS LEAGUE DRAW

LEAGUE A

POT 1: Germany, Portugal, Belgium, Spain

POT 2: France, England, Switzerland, Italy

POT 3: Poland, Iceland, Croatia, Netherlands

LEAGUE B

POT 1: Austria, Wales, Russia, Slovakia

POT 2: Sweden, Ukraine, Republic of Ireland, Bosnia & Herzegovina

POT 3: Northern Ireland, Denmark, Czech Republic, Turkey

LEAGUE C

POT 1: Hungary, Romania, Scotland, Slovenia

POT 2: Greece, Serbia, Albania, Norway

POT 3: Montenegro, Israel, Bulgaria, Finland

POT 4: Cyprus, Estonia, Lithuania

LEAGUE D

POT 1: Azerbaijan, FYR Macedonia, Belarus, Georgia

POT 2: Armenia, Latvia, Faroe Islands, Luxembourg

POT 3: Kazakhstan, Moldova, Liechtenstein, Malta

POT 4: Andorra, Kosovo, San Marino, Gibraltar

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