Wednesday 23 January 2019

Daniel McDonnell: Nations League concept will be hard to sell when results have to be filed away for rainy day

Martin O’Neill. Photo: Sportsfile
Martin O’Neill. Photo: Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

This is a big day for UEFA with the launch of their Nations League competition but it's safe to say that, in this part of the world, the new competition has become a sideshow to the news.

Martin O'Neill is in Switzerland to finally take questions on the saga surrounding his future which has dominated January for the FAI with the signing of his new contract only part of the process of moving on.

The Irish delegation won't be the only one with other matters to address; their neighbours are in a similar boat. Scotland have failed to nab Michael O'Neill, who will be present in a Northern Irish blazer.

Ryan Giggs will be in Lausanne for his first official business since landing the Welsh gig while England, and most of the other European big guns, have a World Cup summer on the mind.

For Ireland, though, the draw will at least give some certainty about what lies ahead for the national senior team in 2018.

O'Neill might have some explaining to do today, but the viewing audience might need the nuances of the Nations League explained to them.

What is this competition?

The Nations League is UEFA's solution to the unattractiveness of international friendlies which are becoming increasingly hard to sell. Regular qualifying for Euro 2020 has been pushed back to 2019 where an entire campaign will be crammed into a year. Every second autumn - after major tournaments - the League will be played in September, October and November.

How does it work?

The 55 member nations have been divided into four leagues - League A, B, C and D - according to their UEFA coefficient. A and B have 12 teams in them, while C has 15 and D has 16 teams. Each league will be divided into smaller pools. Ireland are in League B which will be split into four groups of three. The winner of each group will move up to League A for the next round of the Nations League, while the bottom side will fall down to League C. In the summer of next year, the four group winners in League A will come together for a tournament to crown the Nations League champions.

What's the selling point here?

For the powerful nations, the carrot is more matches against each other whereas qualifying is full of turkey shoots.

But the real political thinking behind this idea comes to light with the certainty that one team from each League is guaranteed a place in Euro 2020. In other words, one of the 16 lowest-ranked nations in D will go through. It's no surprise it passed.

So a strong performance in the Nations League can help you get to Euro 2020?

Yes. Firstly, results in the Nations League will decide the seeds for December's draw in Dublin. But the real point that matters is that the Nations League route has replaced the play-offs in the scramble for the final four places. Ireland qualified for the 24-team Euro 2016 after finishing third in their group, and then bettering Bosnia over two legs. If Ireland finish outside the top two next year, their fate will be determined by the new tournament.

How will that process work?

In regular qualifying, two teams will go through from each of the ten groups. Then, the last four places go to the sides that come through the Nations League play-offs in March 2020. The four highest-ranked sides in each league (16 in total) who have failed to get through regular qualifying get another shot via a mini-play-off tournament - a one-legged semi-final and final. It means Nations League results will be pivotal in League C & League D given only a handful of sides in C and possibly none in D will make it the traditional way. By contrast, it's possible bulk of the 20 regular qualifiers will come from Leagues A & B so the chances of a back-door ticket in a play-off are higher.

Explain that please?

If Ireland struggle in regular qualifying, but eight of the other 12 sides in League B go through, they will definitely get a second chance. If seven go through, then UEFA Nations League results will decide which one of the other five nations miss a play-off. However, the other possible way back in for teams in League B is that if ten teams go through from League A then any teams that are set to miss out from the league below get bumped up to fill out the League A play-off competition. Put simply, teams in League A and League B would have to endure a shocking run of results to be out by March 2020.

So we won't know if the games matter for a year?

That's basically it, in a nutshell. Other than the short-term importance of deciding whether Ireland are second or third seeds in the qualifying, these results will be banked away for a rainy day.

Who can Ireland draw today?

Ireland are in Pot 2 of League B with Sweden, Ukraine and Bosnia. O'Neill's men will draw one side from Pot 1 (Austria, Wales, Russia and Slovakia) and Pot 3 (Northern Ireland, Denmark, Czech Republic and Turkey.) Russia and Ukraine cannot be drawn in the same group. The four games (home and away v each opponent) will be across September, October and November.

What would the ideal draw be?

It's hard to be definitive because a blanket could be thrown over the sides although a reunion with Denmark is best avoided. A Celtic league with Wales and Northern Ireland might generate novelty interest. For the countries in League D, this draw can be a game-changer. Further up the food chain, it's difficult to see this initiative stirring emotion. Still, you suspect O'Neill would prefer to discuss the permutations than talk about the process leading to his new contract.

Irish Independent

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport