Belfast Telegraph

Revealed: Irish League has already won back lost European place before Linfield's tie against Sutjeska

Ballymena United, Linfield, Crusaders and Cliftonville all progressed through a round of European competition this summer.
Ballymena United, Linfield, Crusaders and Cliftonville all progressed through a round of European competition this summer.
Gareth Hanna

By Gareth Hanna

A tweak in European competition regulations for the 2021/22 season means the Irish League has already won back its lost European place.

Northern Ireland, of course, dropped to 52nd place from 55 nations in UEFA's coefficient rankings last season and so, will send just three teams into European competition next summer. The winners of the 19/20 Danske Bank Premiership must also enter the four-team qualification round for the Champions League.

The lost place cost the league at least £195k in European prize-money and will have significant ramifications for the coming season, with the European play-offs expected to be scrapped.

However, a summer of hugely improved results means the league will again have four teams in Europe for the 2021/22 season, meaning just one season, the 20/21 campaign, with reduced numbers.

After a summer in which Crusaders, Ballymena United and Cliftonville all progressed through a round of the Europa League, Linfield's victory over HB Torshavn last Thursday evening was enough to push the Irish League back up the all-important European coefficient rankings.

As things stand, Northern Ireland are back up to 51st place, leapfrogging the Faroe Islands. Interestingly, Ballymena, Crusaders and Linfield all secured wins over Faroese teams this summer, key to such a significant swing in coefficient figures.

Under the current UEFA structures, the pressure would still be on Linfield to secure another bump up the rankings as, for the 20/21 season, 51st place still only receives three European places; one Champions League and two Europa League spots.

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However, a significant sea change from 2021 onwards brings good news.

With the advent of a brand new third-tier European competition, the access list is set for a tweak. In the newly-published 2021-2024 list, the nation ranked 51st at the end of the current season WILL be awarded four European places.

Because all teams from the four nations below Northern Ireland (San Marino, Andorra, Faroe Islands, Kosovo) have already been knocked out of European competition, NI is certain to end the campaign in, at worst, 51st place.

For the 2021/22 season, all three of the Irish League's Europa League qualifiers will enter the new Europa League 2 competition. The Europa League as we currently know it will be restricted to clubs from Europe's top 15 ranked nations, clubs dropping out of the Champions League and the winners of the previous season's Europa League 2.

The new competition significantly boosts low-ranked nations such as Northern Ireland's chances of having a team involved in the group stage of European competition.

The Irish League's 20/21 champions will also avoid having to play in the four-team Champions League preliminary round. If they are knocked out in the first qualifying round of the Champions League, they will drop into Europa League 2. If they progress to the CL second qualifying round, they will drop into the Europa League and then, if eliminated in qualifying, into the Europa League 2 Play Offs.

Linfield's upcoming tie with Sutjeska, of course, could still provide an additional benefit to the Irish league. Should the Blues get a win and a draw from their two legs, Northern Ireland would leapfrog Montenegro in the rankings care of a tie-break on the most recent season's performance.

NI could also skip past Estonia if Nomme Kalju are restricted in their upcoming Europa League, for example if the Estonians are beaten twice by Dundelange and Linfield earn two draws against Sutjeska.

Should the results go Northern Ireland's way, the nation could rise as high as 49th in the coefficient list.

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