Belfast Telegraph

UEFA Nations League and what it means for Northern Ireland

Could the Nations League be the back door to the Euros in 2020?

Northern Ireland will be in action in the inaugural Nations League this weekend. It's a competition that's been branded convoluted by some, but what actually is UEFA's newest tournament, and how high are the stakes for Michael O'Neill?

How is the League set up?

First off, all teams in Europe are split into four leagues: A, B, C and D. They're split according to their position in the UEFA National Team Coefficient Rankings. Each of these leagues is then split into four groups: 1, 2, 3, and 4. Each team then plays either at home or away in September, October and November.

League A features the top tier European teams, throwing up some mouthwatering ties such as world champions France v Germany, England v Spain and Portugal v Italy.

Northern Ireland are in League B, and have been drawn in Group 3 with Austria and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Republic of Ireland are also in League B, and they're in action in Group 4 which pits them against Wales and Denmark.

What's at stake?

The winners of the groups in League A will qualify for the UEFA Nations League final next June, where two semi-finals, a third place play-off and a final will take place.

The bottom teams in the four groups in Leagues A, B and C will be relegated, while the teams which top the four groups in Leagues B, C and D will gain promotion.

How does Euro 2020 qualification come into play?

Euro qualifying initially remains more or less the same, that is until the play-off round, and that's when the Nations League results become important.

The winners of each group throughout the four leagues will automatically gain a place in the play-offs for the 2020 European Championships.

If a team tops their group but has already qualified through another avenue, then the next best-ranked team in their league take the place.

Northern Ireland's fixtures

Saturday 8th September, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Windsor Park, 2pm

Friday 12 October, Austria, Ernst Happel Stadium, Vienna, 7.45pm

Monday 15 October 2018, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Stadion Grbavica, 7.45pm

Sunday 18 November 2018, Austria, Windsor Park, 5pm

So after the heartbreak of being dumped out of World Cup contention by Switzerland in a play-off, could Michael O'Neill and Northern Ireland find themselves back in a knock out situation, with a place in the Euros up for grabs?

The Nations League could prove to be a useful route back on to Europe's biggest stage.

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