Explained: What are Northern Ireland's chances of securing a Euro 2020 play-off place and which games should the GAWA keep an eye on?
The Euro 2020 qualifying campaign is drawing ever closer to its climax and, as such, the muddied waters of the potential path to the play-offs are becoming slightly clearer.
Northern Ireland, with the best will in the world, are highly unlikely to earn automatic qualification. They require four points from their two games against the Netherlands or back-to-back wins from their November double-header at home to the Dutch and away to the Germans.
So it's reasonable if we now cast our eyes to the play-off race and its current standings.
How do the Euro 2020 play-offs work?
As we know, 20 teams will go directly into the tournament through the qualification process, leaving four places held over for the play-off winners.
As many as 16 teams will make it into the play-offs, which will be split into four separate paths.
In each path, there will be single-legged semi-finals, to be played on Thursday, March 26 at the home of the higher-ranked side, and a single-legged final on Tuesday, March 31, for which a draw will be made to decide home advantage. Those will result in the four winners who land a coveted place at Euro 2020.
The participants of those play-offs will be decided based on the inaugural UEFA Nations League competition, unhelpfully for Northern Ireland. Having lost all four games of their League B campaign, Michael O'Neill's men are ranked 24th in the Nations League rankings.
The four separate play-off structures are, in theory, to match-up with the four Nations Leagues (A, B, C and D), with the 16 Nations League group winners going forth to the play-offs. However, should any of those group winners qualify directly for the tournament, and they will, the play-off place is handed down to the next best placed team in the Nations League rankings.
As a result, in order to qualify for a play-off place, Northern Ireland require no more than FOUR teams from Nations League C and D to qualify directly for the finals.
For more of an explanation on how it works, see here:
What way does the Euro 2020 play-off race currently stand?
Currently, there is still a risk that Northern Ireland could be cast out into the cold by five pesky League C or D sides. Let's have a look at the runners and riders as things stand, each group's danger rating to Northern Ireland's hopes and when the really key games are coming up:
Group A: Kosovo are the team to look out for after their bright start with eight points from five games. They're just a point behind the Czech Republic and this one is likely to all come down to the meeting between the sides on November 14. A Czech Republic home win is the result Northern Ireland want there. Danger rating: 6/10
Group B: Serbia are also just a point away from a top two spot although, helpfully, second-placed Portugal have a game in hand. The teams have already played each other twice so barring a Portuguese collapse against the likes of Luxembourg and Lithuania or a Serbian win over table-topping Ukraine, Portugal's place should be safe. Danger rating: 3
Group C: Northern Ireland's group. Danger rating: N/A
Group D: The Republic of Ireland, of course, are sitting proudly atop the table and with Denmark and Switzerland in hot pursuit, this group should be safe. Only a remarkable run from Georgia can spoil it and that, simply, isn't going to happen, is it? Danger rating: 0.5
Group E: The danger team here is Hungary, currently residing above Wales in third place, level on points with second-placed Slovakia and just a point behind leaders Croatia. It's all very tight but Hungary's fixtures in this international window are away to Croatia and home to Azerbaijan. While we can assume there's a win over the group's basement side upcoming, NI will be cheering on the Croatians on Thursday evening. Danger rating: 5
Group F: League C teams still in the running Romania and Norway are hot on the heels of second-placed Sweden, one and two points behind respectively. Romania host Norway next Tuesday, when we should know more about who's going to mount a late challenge to the Swedish. As Romania have a harder run-in, NI should be cheering them on this week. If Norway win, there's a real danger they could make it as they should win their last two games, while Sweden must still face Spain and Romania. A Swedish home win over Spain next week would be great. Danger rating: 6
Group G: Slovenia are currently the only League C or D team in a qualification place. They're placed second in Group G, a point ahead of Austria. There is a potentially crunch game coming up on Sunday, when the two sides directly below group leaders Poland meet for a real six-pointer in Slovenia. The GAWA will be cheering on the Austrians. Danger rating: 7
Group H: The side most likely to pose a threat is Albania but, with Turkey and France still to come and those top two six points ahead, it would take an almighty, unthinkable shock. Danger rating: 1
Group I: Belgium and Russia have all-but got qualification sewn up already, with eight points between second-placed Russia and the rest. This would require a miracle to trouble Northern Ireland's play-off hopes. Danger rating: 0.1
Group J: Finally, in Group J, Finland and Armenia are positioned second and third. With next-best Bosnia & Herzegovinia already five points behind Finland, it's not looking great here. We'll know more after Finland go to Bosnia (Saturday) and then host Armenia (next Tuesday). The good news for Northern Ireland is that Italy are six points clear at the top and likely to limit the damage to just one team. Danger rating: 7
So when are the key games?
Here are the games Northern Ireland fans should be paying particular attention to. The team the GAWA should be cheering on is in bold:
October 10: Croatia v Hungary (Result: Croatia 3-0 Hungary)
October 10: North Macedonia v Slovenia (Result: North Macedonia 2-1 Slovenia)
October 12: Bosnia & Herzegovinia v Finland
October 13: Slovenia v Austria
October 15: Romania v Norway
October 15: Finland v Armenia (Draw)
November 14: Czech Republic v Kosovo
So, in conclusion, how's it looking?
I'd wager it's looking rather rosy indeed. The four most unlikely groups to upset the applecart require something not too shy of a miracle to spoil it for Northern Ireland. Providing that doesn't happen, all five of the other groups would need to provide a League C or D automatic qualifier.
The chances of those stars aligning is, surely, a long-shot at best.
It's worth saying we will know MUCH more come the end of the current international window. If we can get the teams in bold above winning, the play-off place would be all-but secure. Conversely, if the other teams manage to come out victorious, things could be in a little bit of a darker place. Let's reconvene next Wednesday and assess the damage.
Until then, Happy International Window.
Belfast Telegraph Digital