Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 July 2014

It's not all doom and gloom as Northern Ireland prepare to meet their European qualifying fate

In the qualifying campaign for this year's World Cup finals, Northern Ireland lost away to Luxembourg and Azerbaijan. Michael O'Neill's side also failed to beat those teams at Windsor Park.

On the basis of that, optimism ahead of the draw for the 2016 European Championship qualifiers should be at an all-time low.

But wait a second, there is hope on the horizon and it comes in the shape of Uefa President, former France star Michel Platini.

Much maligned he may be, but the Frenchman's controversial decision to have more nations competing in the next Euro finals provides some cheer amid the negativity that surrounded Northern Ireland's previous campaign. For European countries to be in Brazil they had to win their group or a play-off if they finished as runners-up.

In order to fly to France in 2016, the top two teams in each group and the best placed third team will qualify with the other third placed sides given a chance to make it through the back door.

You see... it's not all doom and gloom.

Then there's fate... by the time the European Championships in France come around it will be 30 years since Northern Ireland last played in a major finals.

Starting to believe yet?

Well, if Michael O'Neill and his players get the luck of the draw on Sunday when the groups will become known, maybe you'll be digging French phrasebooks.

In the World Cup draw, Northern Ireland were the fourth seeds in a group of six. Come Sunday we will be in Pot 5.

That's what happens when you win just once in a 10 match campaign, even if it was a monumental success against Russia, and finish fifth in your section.

For your information here's how ourselves and the other European nations will line up.

Pot 1: Spain (holders), Germany, Holland, Italy, England, Portugal, Greece, Russia, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Pot 2: Ukraine, Croatia, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, Belgium, Czech Republic, Hungary, Republic of Ireland

Pot 3: Serbia, Turkey, Slovenia, Israel, Norway, Slovakia, Romania, Austria, Poland

Pot 4: Montenegro, Armenia, Scotland, Finland, Latvia, Wales, Bulgaria, Estonia, Belarus

Pot 5: Iceland, Northern Ireland, Albania, Lithuania, Moldova, Macedonia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Cyprus

Pot 6: Luxembourg, Kazakhstan, Liechtenstein, Faroe Islands, Malta, Andorra, San Marino, Gibraltar.

Out of the 53 nations shown, 23 will qualify joining hosts France.

Discount those in pot 6 and those in pot 5 except for Macedonia, Iceland and Georgia who have slim chances and the ratio is 23 from 40. I'll take those odds.

What we need though is for the pairings in Nice to be nice for Northern Ireland.

Given our crazy ability to shine against big nations, we should not fear anyone from Pot 1.

It would be fun to land a glamour tie like England, Spain or Germany, but going Greek will give us more hope.

You just know from Pot 2 Northern Ireland will draw the Republic of Ireland with Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane Windsor bound. Failing that let's have Hungary or the Czech Republic, but not Belgium.

From Pot 3 Austria or Norway would be welcome. Ditto Finland from Pot 4 or even Scotland.

Regarding Pot 6 as long as it's not Kazakhstan or Luxembourg, I'm not bothered.

Be lucky Northern Ireland... then we can all start dreaming again.

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