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Why Northern Ireland are in limbo over changing Euro 2024 play-off structure ahead of Nations League draw


Northern Ireland have been left in the dark over Euro 2024 play-off places. Pic: INPHO/Presseye/William Cherry

Northern Ireland have been left in the dark over Euro 2024 play-off places. Pic: INPHO/Presseye/William Cherry

©INPHO/Presseye/William Cherry

Northern Ireland have been left in the dark over Euro 2024 play-off places. Pic: INPHO/Presseye/William Cherry

A win over Lithuania and a remarkable performance in an unfortunate 0-0 draw with European champions Italy and the future looks a lot rosier for Northern Ireland.

The popularity of manager Ian Baraclough seemed to change with the wind over the course of a packed late summer / autumn schedule as positive windows in September and November sandwiched a miserable October triple-header.

But, a new deal for the boss in the offing, it’s now time to look ahead. 

And to what exactly?

Here’s a quick run-down of the lay of the land including a somewhat unknown landscape for the Euro 2024 play-offs…

What’s the next key date for Northern Ireland?

That would be December 16, at 5pm GMT to be precise. That’s when the UEFA Nations League draw will take place, Northern Ireland due to discover who their three League C opponents will be.

Seeded first, the teams they can face (with world rankings in brackets) are:

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Pot 2: Greece (55), Belarus (95), Luxembourg (93), North Macedonia (67)

Pot 3: Lithuania (136), Georgia (86), Azerbaijan (120), Kosovo (111)

Pot 4: Kazakhstan (119) / Moldova (181)*, Cyprus (105) / Estonia (107)*, Gibraltar (203), Faroe Islands (123)

(*Pending results of League D play-offs in March)

How does this link in with the Euro 2024 play-offs?

The European Championship play-offs are the big prize on offer for the Nations League. Whatever about promotion and relegation in its own right, it’s the play-off spots that offer the real pay-out to this competition.

You may remember that Northern Ireland's ranking as a League B nation was enough to secure a Euro 2020 play-off place regardless of the fact they finished bottom of their Nations League group.

However, things will work a little differently this time round. That’s because, unlike for Euro 2020, the hosts earn an automatic spot at the 2024 finals.

That’s Germany, who are now exempt from qualifying and set to be joined by the 20 automatic qualifiers, leaving just three places for play-off winners, rather than the four that were played for last time out.

That means there is a reduction in play-off places from 16 (across four separate play-off paths) for Euro 2020 to 12 (across three paths of semi-finals and a final) for Euro 2024.

The other change is that the Nations League structure has altered since the inaugural competition, which linked into Euro 2020. More on the relevance of that shortly.

UEFA have told the Belfast Telegraph that they will not officially unveil the Euro 2024 regulations, including how the play-off spots will be won, potentially until next summer.

However, it is hoped that a decision could be reached earlier than that, at the next UEFA Executive Committee meeting, which is scheduled for the same day that the Nations League draw takes place on December 16.

How can Northern Ireland earn a Euro 2024 play-off place?

Of course, we can’t say for certain until UEFA get their heads together but it would seem that the most sensible arrangement would be to hand the 12 play-off places to all group winners in Leagues A, B and C, with the two League D group winners the fall guys (somebody has to be).

So that means if Northern Ireland were to win their Nations League group, they would be assured of a play-off place.

And what if they don’t win their group?

Well, obviously, some – many - of those League A, B and C group winners are highly likely to go on to qualify automatically for Euro 2024.

It would seem sensible that UEFA follow the hand-me-down rules that were used last time out in that scenario. Those saw the play-off places of any direct qualifiers given to the next highest ranking Nations League side not to have already secured an automatic or play-off place.

For Euro 2020, even the four second placed teams across League C bagged play-off places as a result.

BUT that will be different this time round, if this suggested structure is followed by UEFA, because of that Nations League restructuring.

In the tournament linking in to Euro 2020, there were only 12 teams in League A and 12 in League B. Now there are 16 in each, meaning it’s mathematically impossible for League C runners-up to get any hand-me-downs this time round.

Even if all eight of the League A and B play-off places are handed down and all 20 automatic qualifiers are from the top two divisions, the lowest ranked team that can benefit from a hand-me-down play-off spot is the side placed 11th in League B.

So if this structure is the one chosen by UEFA, it’s likely win the Nations League group or bust for Northern Ireland in terms of the play-offs. The only caveat to that would be if one of the League C group winners also qualified automatically for the Euro 2024 finals, their play-off place would go to the highest ranking second placed finisher in League C. Given the relative strength of the nations involved, that would perhaps seem unlikely although North Macedonia did finish second in their recent World Cup qualifying group and Finland managed it as a League C team last time round.

Then, of course, it’s all down to bagging an automatic spot via the Euro 2024 qualification route.

And, just to reiterate, that’s all speculative until UEFA lift the lid on their plans.

What are the key dates to look out for in 2022?

March 21-29: Two match-dates with friendly games set to take place

May 30-June 14: A bumper window with the first four UEFA Nations League matches scheduled

September 19-27: Final two UEFA Nations League matches

October 9: Euro 2024 qualifying campaign draw

And that’s your lot for the year, with the World Cup finals set to take place from November 21 to December 18.

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