Belfast Telegraph

Plotting a course to the Euro play-offs

Michael O’Neill
Michael O’Neill
Gareth Hanna

By Gareth Hanna

With just two Euro 2020 qualifying matches to go, the play-off picture is becoming increasingly clear.

Northern Ireland, of course, need to beat both the Netherlands and Germany next month to keep alive their hopes of automatically making it to the finals.

Failing that, they're just hoping they can secure a spot at the final qualification hurdle in March.

The good news is that it would require all-but a miracle to deny Northern Ireland a play-off place. Read on to find out why, who they will play and when it will be confirmed.

How do the Euro 2020 play-offs work?

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.

In order to seal a play-off place, Northern Ireland require no more than FOUR teams from Nations Leagues C and D to qualify directly for the finals.

What are the chances of Northern Ireland making it to the Euro 2020 play-offs?

In short, it would require something truly spectacular to deny them.

It would require five teams from Leagues C or D to make it out of the six qualification groups that are still relevant. The chances of more than one or two doing so are very, very slim.

Who are Northern Ireland likely to face in the Euro 2020 play-offs?

As things stand, Northern Ireland will enter the Nations League B play-offs along with Bosnia & Herzegovina, Wales and Slovakia.

If that remains the same, Northern Ireland will go to Bosnia & Herzegovina on March 26 for the play-off semi-final and then potentially play the winner of Wales v Slovakia in the decider.

However, that could change between now and the draw on November 22. In truth, it's still so complicated that Northern could be going anywhere in March, or even staying in Belfast.

For example, it is still reasonably likely that (at least) Turkey and Republic of Ireland or Denmark could drop into the play-offs, while Wales in particular will still fancy their chances of jumping into an automatic qualification place.

Should there be more than four teams from League B going into the play-offs, Northern Ireland could be shunted up to the League A play-off structure, resulting in a potentially difficult trip to a nation like Portugal or Iceland. It's worth pointing out, however, that all of this is hypothetical, because Uefa have recognised the complicated nature and so, they admit, the exact procedure of the play-off draw will 'be confirmed once the actual teams involved are known.'

Complications they may throw in include the Euro 2020 finals host nations potentially being kept apart. They've allowed for this with their rule that 'additional conditions may be applied' to the draw with the committee's approval.

All of which means Uefa's process isn't set in stone, but let's speculate anyway:

What's the most likely outcome?

Based on the favourites winning next month's matches and no mystery conditions changing the lay of the land, Northern Ireland will go into the League B play-offs.

They would face Bosnia & Herzegovina in the semi-final and then the winners of Slovakia v Republic of Ireland in the decider.

Worst-case scenario

Portugal, Switzerland and Iceland being the three teams going forth to the play-offs from League A, while League B contributes five play-off sides.

Northern Ireland, along with the other non Nations League group winners, would go into a draw to decide who goes to the League A play-offs.

Should it be Northern Ireland, they would be faced with a semi-final away to Portugal. Nice, eh?

Best-case scenario

Ok so let's look at the flip-side. If Bosnia and Wales/Slovakia both qualify automatically (which is highly unlikely) and all else stays as is currently forecast, it would lift Bulgaria and Israel into the League B path, pitting Northern Ireland at home to Bulgaria in the semi-final.

Bizarre scenario

If League B contributes five teams to the play-offs and League A contributes only one - which is reasonably likely - Northern Ireland could be moved into the League A play-off structure yet be handed a home draw against a League C nation such as Bulgaria in the semi-final.

No wonder Uefa can apply 'additional conditions'.

We'll just have to wait and see what happens when November 22 comes round.

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

In theory, it could all be confirmed on the first match-day of the November 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 particularly unlikely so perhaps the realistic earliest date would be the following 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 let's wager it'll be done and dusted by then.

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