Saturday 22 September 2018

Ireland in 'B' tier for Nations League

Ireland manager Martin O'Neill. Photo: PA
Ireland manager Martin O'Neill. Photo: PA
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Martin O'Neill's Ireland are in League B for the new UEFA Nations League after their strong finish to the World Cup qualifying campaign.

UEFA's initiative is set to replace international friendlies in the calendar and will change the order of regular major tournament qualifying.

It will also offer teams a back-door route to Euro 2020 if they struggle through the normal qualifiers.

The league stage of the competition takes place between September and November 2018 - with the start of Euro 2020 qualifiers proper delayed until the following March.

UEFA have split their 55-member nations into four divisions based on their UEFA coefficient. There are 12 teams in League A, 12 in League B, 15 in League C and 16 in League D.

Ireland are with other second-tier nations in League B. In January, the draw for the tournament takes place and the 12 sides will be split into four groups of three teams. They will then play each other on a home-and-away basis next autumn.

Possible opponents for Ireland include neighbours Northern Ireland and Wales who slipped down from League A on account of Monday's result in Cardiff .

The four group winners are promoted to League A with the four sides that finish bottom relegated to League C for the next competition in 2020.

Crucially, the top four ranked League B teams that do not qualify for Euro 2020 will enter play-offs in March 2020 with one place in the competition on offer.

These play-offs will replace the route that allowed Ireland into the 24-team Euro 2016. On that occasion, Martin O'Neill's side finished third in their group and got a crack at a two-legged decider.

In the regular Euro 2020 qualifying, which takes place in 2019, the top two sides in each group will progress to the finals. The other sides will be hoping that their UEFA Nations League ranking grants them a play-off chance.

Unusually, it means that Ireland will be actively hoping that other sides in League B do well in traditional qualifying so it gives them a safety net should they fall short themselves.

Ostensibly, the initiative is about appeasing the big guns in League A who want to play each other more often in lucrative games and it also gives them a strong back-up plan if they suffer a disastrous qualifying series.

However, the radical change will also mean that one of the 16 sides in League D is guaranteed a place in the Euro 2020 finals which will be spread across the continent.

Therefore, some of the top-ranked League D sides such as Azerbaijan, Macedonia, Belarus and Georgia might actually have a better chance of going through because they are at that level rather than League C. It will take a while for supporters to adjust.

League A: Germany, Portugal, Belgium, Spain, France, England, Switzerland, Italy, Poland, Iceland, Croatia, The Netherlands.

League B: Austria, Wales, Russia, Slovakia, Sweden, Ukraine, Republic of Ireland, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Northern Ireland, Denmark, Czech Republic, Turkey.

League C: Hungary, Romania, Scotland, Slovenia, Greece, Serbia, Albania, Norway, Montenegro, Israel, Bulgaria, Finland, Cyprus, Estonia and Lithuania.

League D: Azerbaijan, FYR Macedonia, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia, Latvia, Faroe Islands, Luxembourg, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Liechtenstein, Malta, Andorra, Kosovo, San Marino, Gibraltar.

Irish Independent

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