Who will Michael O'Neill's Northern Ireland face in the Euro 2020 play-offs and when can their place be confirmed?
- Who can Northern Ireland play in the play-offs?
- Is there any chance they could miss out on the play-offs?
- When is their play-off place likely to be confirmed?
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.
For more details on how the play-offs will work, have a look here:
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. Scroll down for an in-depth explanation but first....
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 & Herzegovinia, Wales and Slovakia. If that remains the same, Northern Ireland will go to Bosnia & Herzegovinia on March 26 for the play-off semi-final and then potentially play the winner of Wales v Slovakia, venue to be decided by a draw, in the final.
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.
BUT, it's worth pointing out that all of this is hypothetical, because UEFA have recognised the complicated nature and so, they admit that 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.
For this reason, don't let anybody tell you they know for sure who Northern Ireland will face. They can't as UEFA's process isn't even set in stone.
That aside, 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 & Herzegovinia in the semi-final and then the winners of Slovakia v Republic of Ireland in the decider.
Worst-case scenario: The worst-case realistic scenario is 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 team to the Play-Offs, 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 see come November 22nd, really. Over to you, UEFA.
So, after the October international window, what has changed in the play-off race?
We can now rule three of the Euro 2020 qualifying groups out of causing Northern Ireland any hassle in terms of actually making it to the play-offs.
In Group H, the best-placed side from Nations League C or D is Albania but, seven points behind second placed France with two games to go, they've no chance of qualifying.
In Group I, qualification has already been rubber-stamped by both Belgium and Russia.
In Group D, Georgia's failure to take six points from the October window ruled them out.
Also taking out Northern Ireland's group, that leaves six groups potentially contributing direct qualifiers from Nations Leagues C and D.
How the play-off race looks after the October international window
Group A: Kosovo remain the trouble team although the Czech Republic's win over England was a help, ensuring they stayed second, one point clear. The two sides meet on November 14 and, assuming the Czechs go on to beat Bulgaria, Kosovo need to beat their rivals and then go on to take a point against England. That would seem unlikely, although not impossible. Danger rating: 4/10
Group B: Serbia remain just a point behind Portugal in the race for second behind Ukraine. Both sides have to play Luxembourg in November but Serbia also take on the group leaders while the Portuguese are playing Lithuania. The advantage, helpfully, is with Portugal in terms of both points and fixtures. Danger rating: 3
Group E: Hungary are now one of only two teams from Leagues C or D currently in a qualification place thanks to their win over Azerbaijan but Slovakia are two points behind and have a game in hand. The Slovaks have to go to Croatia but, finish their campaign at home to basement side Azerbaijan, while Hungary go to Wales. All to play for although the most likely outcome is for Hungary to require a win in Wales. Danger rating: 5
Group F: Romania are just a point behind second-placed Sweden and, even though Norway are still in with a chance, it's the Romanians who are the chief trouble-makers here. Assuming Sweden see off the pointless Faroe Islands on the final day, the Romanians need to beat the Swedes 1-0 (or by at least two goals) and then draw with Spain. If they beat Spain as well, the margin of victory against Sweden is irrelevant. Danger rating: 3
Group G: Macedonia and Slovenia are still mathematically in the hunt for a qualification place but Austria need just two points from their two games next month to end that dream. Even if they do lose at home to Macedonia, a final day win over pointless Latvia would be enough. Danger rating: 2
Group J: Finland are second after their 3-0 win over Armenia on Tuesday. With bottom two Greece and Liechtenstein to come in November, they will fancy their chances of finnishing (top pun) the job, especially given that Bosnia still must face Italy. Danger rating: 9.5
When could Northern Ireland's play-off place be confirmed?
In theory, it could 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 unlikely so perhaps the realistic earliest date would be the next 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 I'd wager it'll be done and dusted by then.
At this stage, it seems a matter of when and not if Northern Ireland's play-off place will be confirmed but once they get there, it's anybody's guess who they will play.
Belfast Telegraph Digital