Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland need luck of draw in European Championship qualifying draw

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland may have dropped to 90 in Fifa's World Rankings, but the number five will be of much more relevance to manager Michael O'Neill today.

That's the position where his team finished in their World Cup qualifying group and it is highly probable that will be the pot they are in when the draw for the 2016 European Championship qualifiers takes place, making the prospect of reaching the finals in France tougher than it should have been.

Effectively being seeded fifth acts as a punishment for having such a poor World Cup campaign.

Entering the road to Rio, Northern Ireland were the fourth seeds in a group of six containing Russia, Portugal, Israel, Azerbaijan and Luxembourg.

O'Neill knew being ahead of top two Russia and Portugal was never on the cards, but he did feel that third spot, or at the very least challenging Israel for it, was a realistic proposition.

He did not believe Northern Ireland, as it turned out, would be fighting with the two weakest nations in the section to avoid ending up on the bottom rung of the ladder.

Only winning once in the entire 10-match campaign and finishing fifth as a result meant that O'Neill's side did not live up to their pre-tournament ranking.

And with European seedings determined by what teams have done in the last two World Cups and the 2012 Euros, it means our wee country is rated alongside the likes of Albania, Lithuania and Cyprus.

On paper then Northern Ireland are set for a difficult draw in Nice in February, though as Steven Davis, Jonny Evans, Martin Paterson and the rest have shown, they tend to rise to the occasion when facing the big hitters, but fail against the lesser lights.

Remember more teams will qualify for the Euro 2016 finals providing smaller nations like Northern Ireland with a greater opportunity to make the glamour stages. Out of the nine groups, the winners and runners-up will automatically go through to join the hosts. The best placed third team will also book flights to France with the eight remaining third placed sides involved in two legged play-offs 13 months from now.

So, who are we likely to face in the next series of competitive matches which will kick off in September 2014?

Well, O'Neill and the supporters will be delighted to know that with Azerbaijan also in Pot 5 the teams can't be paired together.

Azerbaijan took four points off Northern Ireland in the World Cup qualifiers, with a draw at Windsor Park and home win in Baku.

Incidentally while Northern Ireland are in 90th in the new Fifa rankings, sandwiched between El Salvador and Congo, Azerbaijan moved up 19 places to 88 on the back of their recent victory over O'Neill's side and a 1-1 draw with Brazil-bound Russia on Tuesday night.

Pot One contains the giants of European football including Spain, Germany, England, Holland, Italy, Russia and Portugal. Although Northern Ireland have enjoyed success in the last decade over most of them, it's generally preferable to avoid these nations. That could leave Bosnia-Herzegovina, becoming stronger all the time, and Greece. Let's go Greek.

The team to miss in Pot Two will be Belgium. They are expected to go far in next summer's World Cup, but with that experience behind them will be even more dangerous in the Euros. Hungary or the Czech Republic are the teams to draw from this section, though a match up with the Republic of Ireland, who would be under new management, would create huge interest.

There's not much to get excited about in Pot Three. Trips to Serbia or Turkey would be testing with Norway or Austria much more appealing alternatives.

Pot Four could have Scotland and Wales, so drawing either of those two would be welcome but facing off against Poland would be one to miss.

And that brings us to Pot Six and minnows like Luxembourg. Please No! Gibraltar would target Northern Ireland as the team to gain their first victory against so Andorra or San Marino would be better options.

Going into our Euro 2016 group seeded number five, the hope must be to stay alive and in contention for qualification longer than we did in the World Cup campaign. The luck of the draw will have much to do with that.

Belfast Telegraph


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