Explained: What Northern Ireland need to seal a Euro 2020 play-off place ahead of qualification campaign
Even the most optimistic members of the Green and White Army will concede that gaining automatic qualification for Euro 2020 is, shall we say, unlikely for Northern Ireland.
Unless you've been inhabiting some sort of media vacuum since Sunday morning, you'll by this stage know that Michael O'Neill's side have been plopped into Group C alongside the Netherlands AND Germany.
If there had been no caveats placed in the regulations for the draw, it would have been the Republic of Ireland condemned to the group of death, but that's all water under the bridge at this stage, and is sure to never be mentioned again. Ahem.
In light of that drama, which left Michael O'Neill putting on a brave face for the camera but no doubt wishing he could reboot his saved game, it would seem that NI's best hope of qualification for the tournament comes via the play-offs.
What are Northern Ireland's chances of making the Euro 2020 play-offs?
SPOILER: For those that can't be bothered reading through all the details, first of all that's hurtful given my hard graft in getting it all explained for you, but secondly it is very likely that Northern Ireland will make the Euro 2020 play-offs. For those of you who want to know why, read on (and for an extra tip, scroll straight to the bottom if you want the really key but brief info).
So how do the Euro 2020 play-offs work?
In total, 20 teams (two from each group) will qualify automatically for Euro 2020 via the traditional qualification process. That leaves four places to be won via the play-offs.
In all, 16 teams will take part in the play-offs, ideally four from each of the four Nations Leagues (A, B, C and - predictably - D). There will be four separate play-off systems, one to represent each league structure with one finals place for each. Those will be made up of two single-legged semi-finals, to be played at the home of the higher-ranked side, and a single-legged final, for which a draw will be made to decide home advantage. The play-offs will take place on 26-31 March 2020.
Unfortunately for Northern Ireland, the play-off places are handed out based on UEFA Nations League performances. Needless to say, NI's four successive defeats in the inaugural edition of “the most senseless competition in the world” (Klopp, 2018) are set to prove an unwelcome hinderance. Fear not, hope springs eternal and the door could yet be prised open.
The play-off spots go, all things being equal, to the group winners. However, if any of those secure qualification through the standard route, their play-off place will be handed down like an outgrown jumper. The spot will go, as a first preference, to the next highest ranked team in the Nations League rankings.
Because Northern Ireland were the worst-performing League B team, they're ranked 24th. That will not change, regardless of their Euro 2020 qualifying performance. (The Republic are little better off, ranked 23rd.)
In order to make it into the League B play-offs, Northern Ireland would need eight of the 11 teams ahead of them in the League B rankings to qualify automatically.
Even if that doesn't happen, Northern Ireland could yet make it into a play-off structure outside of their own Nations League.
Hypothetical scenario A: Northern Ireland make play-offs
So let's say, for example, 10 teams qualify from League A, six make it from League B and the remaining four come from League C. Remember that there are just 12 teams each in Leagues A and B.
Leagues C and D would be able to provide four teams each to their play-off structure, so no drama there.
However, League A could contribute only two play-off teams. For argument, let's say those are Germany and Iceland. League B could contribute their four standard play-off part-takers AND Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland (should they not have automatically qualified) would be shunted into the play-offs in lieu of League A teams because they would be the next-best-ranked sides available.
But how would it be decided which teams play in the League A and B play-offs? You'd think NI and RoI, as the worst-ranked, would face the more difficult League A play-offs, but not necessarily. As rules stand, UEFA would conduct a draw with the play-off teams from the two leagues (excluding League B group winners) to see who goes where.
In theory, that could bizarrely result in Germany and/or Iceland dropping to the League B play-offs while four League B teams play in the League A play-offs. It's complicated and UEFA know it. That's why they've included a handy caveat in the Euro 2020 rules, stating that 'additional conditions may be applied' with the committee's blessing. So in reality, common sense would suggest they seed Germany and Iceland into the League A play-offs.
Hypothetical scenario B: Northern Ireland miss out on play-offs
Northern Ireland could miss the play-offs. That would happen if, for example, the automatic qualifiers are six teams from League A, six from League B, six from League C and two from League D. All four leagues would therefore be able to make up their own play-offs, and crucially, NI's 24th placed ranking (as well as RoI's 23rd) would not make it into the League B play-offs.
So how likely is it Northern Ireland will make the play-offs?
Before we disappear up that hypothetical rabbit-hole, let's cut to the chase.
In short, it is very likely that Northern Ireland will make the play-offs.
They will be in the play-offs if 16 of the 20 automatic qualifiers come from Nations Leagues A and B. Given that those are, by definition, the top teams, that shouldn't be too big an ask.
To put it another way, unless FIVE teams from Leagues C or D seal automatic qualification, Northern Ireland WILL get a play-off spot.
Added info: For the Republic of Ireland, just read the above again but change the figures to 15 of the 20 automatic qualifiers from Leagues A and B / Six teams from Leagues C or D.
Belfast Telegraph Digital