Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland and Michael O'Neill can't wait to sink teeth into Nations League

By Graham Luney

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill says he's relishing the Uefa Nations League challenge after turning down the chance to manage Scotland.

The draw for the new international competition will be made in Switzerland today and Northern Ireland could be pitted against both Wales and the Republic of Ireland.

O'Neill acknowledges he will learn more from watching his players in competitive matches rather than friendly fixtures which are often dismissed as meaningless.

The Nations League's appeal is boosted by the fact that four Euro 2020 finals places are up for grabs.

The group games begin in September and Northern Ireland, after their success in recent years, are in League B where they will be picked from Pot Three, alongside Denmark, Czech Republic and Turkey.

They cannot be drawn against their fellow Pot Three countries, but instead will go up against one side from Pot One and one side from Pot Two.

Northern Ireland will play either Austria, Wales, Russia or Slovakia from Pot One, and Sweden, Ukraine, the Republic of Ireland or Bosnia from Pot Two.

An all-Ireland battle would capture the imagination of fans while a date with the Welsh, now managed by Ryan Giggs, would offer a chance to gain revenge for the devastating Euro 2016 loss in France.

O'Neill, who is poised to agree a new four-year extension to his Northern Ireland contract after rejecting Scotland's approach, said: "It's exciting, it's a competition which we are all trying to understand a little bit but there are qualification places up for grabs through this route so it takes away the friendly scenario where people ask, 'What is the purpose of them?'

"The fact that we are in the second pool means we will have at least two good games home and away, possibly three good games.

"We don't know what size the group will be but it's always better to assess players in competitive games as opposed to friendly games.

"There will be a little transition in our squad so it's good that the tournament is coming before the Euro qualifiers start.

"When you are a small nation like us, the Euro qualifiers will run from March to November so when they are run over a shorter space of time hopefully injuries won't affect you as much.

"We will need our big players fit for as many games as possible and I'm really looking forward to it, as will the players.

"It's something different and we will try to do as well as possible.

"You are also playing against teams who will improve your ranking.

"One of our biggest challenges is the cost of holding friendlies and bringing teams here. The big teams play against the big teams in friendlies so it's good to have this tournament to fill that void."

For the Nations League, Uefa have split their 55 nations into four mini-leagues, which will be drawn into three and four-team groups.

Northern Ireland will play the two teams in their group home and away during September, October and November this year.

There will be an international double-header each month.

If Northern Ireland were to win their group, they would be promoted to League A for the next tournament in 2020.

If they were to finish bottom, they would be relegated to League C.

All group winners go into a play-off with the prize on offer a place in the Euro finals - if they haven't already qualified by normal means.

The same process exists for Leagues A, C and D, meaning a small nation from League D will appear in the Euro 2020 finals.

The winners of the groups in League A go into a final four competition in the summer of 2019, and the winner of that will be declared champions.

Uefa have ruled that, due to the current relations between the countries, the Russians and Ukrainians cannot be drawn together in the same group.

O'Neill's men have a one in four chance of meeting the Republic, but if Russia come out from Pot One, those odds are obviously decreased.

Northern Ireland know Slovakia well, having played them in a pre-Euro 2016 finals warm-up match, while O'Neill's boys beat Russia in 2013.

O'Neill will also need to hold conversations with Gareth McAuley, Chris Brunt, Jamie Ward and Aaron Hughes to determine if they want to remain involved in the set-up.

An uninspiring draw may hasten the retirement plans of a few senior players.

Qualification for the 2020 European Championships does not start in earnest until March 2019 and Uefa hope these games will bring an end to mundane international friendlies.

What the new competition is all about

What is the Uefa Nations League?

  It is a new international competition which will replace most friendlies with competitive matches.

  It is designed to allow teams to play against those who are equally ranked and is made up of four mini-leagues, which each contain four groups.

  There is also the chance to qualify for Euro 2020 with the play-offs for the tournament due to involve the 16 Nations League group winners.

  If they have already qualified for Euro 2020, the next best-ranked team in their league will go into the play-offs.

  Each league has a path of its own, and will consist of two single-leg semi-finals and a one-off final. The winner of each path will qualify for Euro 2020.

Where are the home nations in the draw?

  England are in League A and will be in Pot 2 with France, Switzerland and Italy.

  Wales and Northern Ireland will be in League B and Pot 1 and Pot 3 respectively with Scotland in Pot 1 of League C.

  The Republic of Ireland are in League B and Pot 2.

How does the league work?

  The 55 nations will be divided into four mini-leagues (A, B, C, D) with the allocation determined by each country’s Uefa ranking in November 2017.

  Those with the highest ranking will go into League A and so on and each league will be split into groups of three or four teams, playing home and away.

  The four group winners of League A qualify for the Nations League finals in June 2019.

  The winners of Leagues B, C and D are promoted but those who finish bottom of A, B and C will be relegated for 2020-21.

When does it start?

  There are 138 league fixtures which start with match day one between September 6 and 8.

  The draw for the finals is in December with the finals held between June 5-9, 2019.

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