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UEFA Nations League draw: All you need to know as Northern Ireland's fixtures confirmed

 

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Northern Ireland will host Austria at Windsor Park on October 8.

Northern Ireland will host Austria at Windsor Park on October 8.

Northern Ireland discover their opponents in the 20/21 UEFA Nations League.

Northern Ireland discover their opponents in the 20/21 UEFA Nations League.

Kevin Scott

Northern Ireland will host Austria at Windsor Park on October 8.

Northern Ireland will face Austria, Norway and Romania in the 20/21 UEFA Nations League.

Currently, Northern Ireland, 36th, are the second highest ranked of the four teams in the FIFA World Rankings, behind 26th placed Austria but ahead of both 37th placed Romania and 44th placed Norway. The lowest ranked team in the group, however, will bring one of Europe's most feared marksmen in Erling Haaland to Windsor Park.

Elsewhere, the Republic of Ireland will face Wales, Finland and Bulgaria while England, in League A, take on Belgium, Denmark and Iceland.

While the second edition of the tournament is not as closely linked to World Cup qualification as the inaugural event, Northern Ireland still have a chance of sealing a World Cup play-off place if they manage to win their four-team group after home and away matches.

The games will take place between September and November this year.

Here's everything you need to know:

What is the UEFA Nations League draw?

League A

Group A1: Poland, Bosnia & Herzegovinia, Italy, Netherlands.

Group A2: Iceland, Denmark, Belgium, England.

Group A3: Croatia, Sweden, France, Portugal.

Group A4: Germany, Ukraine, Spain, Switzerland.

League B

Group B1: Romania, Northern Ireland, Norway, Austria.

Group B2: Israel, Slovakia, Scotland, Czech Republic.

Group B3: Hungary, Turkey, Serbia, Russia.

Group B4: Bulgaria, Republic of Ireland, Finland, Wales.

League C

Group C1: Azerbaijan, Luxembourg, Cyprus, Montenegro.

Group C2: Armenia, Estonia, North Macedonia, Georgia.

Group C3: Moldova, Slovenia, Kosovo, Greece.

Group C4: Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Belarus, Albania.

League D

Group D1: Malta, Andorra, Latvia, Faroe Islands.

Group D2: San Marino, Liechtenstein, Gibraltar.

When will the games take place?

The Northern Ireland's fixture dates have been confirmed.

Friday 4 September: Romania v Northern Ireland

Monday 7 September: Northern Ireland v Norway

Thursday 8 October: Northern Ireland v Austria

Thursday 11 October: Norway v Northern Ireland

Thursday 14 November: Austria v Northern Ireland

Thursday 17 November: Northern Ireland v Romania

Who are the key players facing Northern Ireland?

Austria: The top seeds will bring former West Ham and Stoke striker Marko Arnautovic. The 30-year-old is currently plying his trade in China with Shanghai SIPG and will look to continue his fine form at international level, having scored six goals in eight World Cup qualifiers over the last year.

Norway: There's a certain Erling Braut Haaland on his way to Windsor Park. The Borussia Dortmund striker has become one of the most feared hitmen in Europe via his form for RB Salzburg and since his January move to Germany.

Romania: The Romanian Player of the Year is currently playing his club football in the English Championship. George Puscas, a 23-year-old striker, has scored nine league goals since his summer move to Reading and scored five times during the World Cup qualification campaign.

What's been said?

Speaking from the draw, IFA chief executive Patrick Nelson said:

 "We're in with some strong opposition. We have faced all teams in fairly recent history with Romania en route to our Euro 2016 adventure, Norway in the 2018 campaign and Austria in our inaugural Nations League tournament.

"The more competitive football our senior men's team get, the better and I hope we start the campaign on the back of a summer being involved in UEFA Euro 2020 which remains our number one priority."

How is the Nations League linked to World Cup qualification?

This time, only two World Cup play-off places will be handed out on Nations League performance.

For the 2022 World Cup, the 10 group winners from the regular qualifying system go directly to the finals. The 10 runners-up enter the play-offs and will be joined by the two best-ranked Nations League group winners who did not qualify directly for the World Cup finals or the play-offs.

The 12 play-off teams will enter three separate systems, with semi-finals and finals to decide the three teams going to the World Cup.

So for that to impact Northern Ireland, they need to win their group and hope that enough of the League A group winners, as well as any higher-ranked group winners from League B, have already qualified.

How has the Nations League format changed?

Teams will this time compete in four-team groups, as opposed to the three-team groups of the 18/19 campaign. The changes mean that 16 teams will now compete in League A, B and C, with only seven in League D. Handily, it saved Northern Ireland from relegation to League C after their poor performance last time round.

The sceptical would suggest it rather conveniently prevented Germany from dropping down to the second tier. Officially, the decision was made to further reduce the number of international friendlies by upping the number of Nations League games.

Either way, it means Northern Ireland will compete in League B and will now have six Nations League matches rather than the four they had last time out.

Is there still promotion and relegation?

Yes, teams who finish top of their groups in Leagues B, C and D will be promoted and teams finishing bottom of their groups in Leagues A and B will be relegated, while there will be relegation play-offs in League C. The four group winners in League A will go forward to the Nations League finals.

Belfast Telegraph