Belfast Telegraph

Michael O'Neill questions Euro 2020 play-off structure with Northern Ireland's place still not secure

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill.
Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill.

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill has questioned the Euro 2020 qualification structure with his side still not assured of a play-off place for a spot at next summer's finals.

Northern Ireland's performance in the traditional Euro 2020 qualification process will have no bearing on whether or not they will be in the March play-offs.

Rather, that is decided by the UEFA Nations League rankings and which teams qualify automatically through the normal route.

In theory, O'Neill's men could have lost every game of their current Group C campaign and still been handed a place in the play-offs, which will have semi-finals and finals to decide the four winners.

The boss has questioned the fairness of that system, although has no issue with the Nations League's addition to the international football calendar.

"I can understand what Uefa have tried to do, but my preference would be for the third place team to have some sort of play-off," he said as he announced his squad for the final two qualifiers against the Netherlands and Germany.

"I think the play-offs will be difficult. You can prepare for the first game but you don't know who you will meet in the second.

"What Uefa are trying to do is do away with meaningless friendly games, and the Nations League going forward we will stay at League B level and there are four teams now in the league.

"The principle of it is good, and I think after this year things will become a little bit clearer for everyone.

"And the games we had against Austria and Bosnia was a sharp introduction to international football for Bailey (Peacock-Farrell), Jamal (Lewis), Jordan (Jones) and George (Saville) coming in and playing at that level.

"And it helped us develop as a team, against playing in a friendly game and players not being available.

"So I am not against the Nations League, but we will have played eight games in qualification, and against two of the biggest teams in Europe, and I think we deserve a play-off.

"Whereas some teams have played opposition of a lesser quality than the Nations League and have guaranteed themselves of a play-off. The key is to continue developing the team, and to do that you have to play against the better teams.

"But it would have been nice to come into this campaign and know you have a play-off, which some countries did. We beat Belarus home and away but they have a play-off."

When could Northern Ireland's play-off place be confirmed?

It does seem a matter more of when that if Northern Ireland will land a play-off place.

In theory, it could be confirmed on the first match-day of the upcoming international window.

That would happen, on November 14, if Kosovo lose in the Czech Republic AND Serbia slip up at home to Luxembourg while Portugal beat Lithuania.

The second part of that seems unlikely so perhaps the realistic earliest date would be the next day, November 15, if one of the above scenarios comes off AND Romania lost to Sweden. If it still isn't secure, it would go to November 16 and would require one of the above scenarios to have occurred AND Austria to win at home to North Macedonia. There are more chances after that but in truth, it's likely to be done and dusted by then.

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