Given their painful exit at the hands of Wales in the 2016 Euro knockout phase, it is no surprise that a few new additions have joined the Northern Ireland squad ready for the 2020 Euro qualifying campaign.
Northern Ireland have been drawn in Group C alongside Germany and Netherlands. Yet it seems that even the most optimistic fans have their doubts about if they can qualify for the major tournament. In this article, we will then be looking at the team’s chances of qualifying and what Michael O’Neill needs to do to achieve just that.
First of all, it should be noted that although only the top two from each qualifying group will gain automatic qualification into the tournament, four spots are available via the playoffs. Belfast Telegraph explains that this is one way the NI could get through, but the fact that playoff spots are given based on UEFA Nations League performances could prove a hindrance. The spots are automatically given to the group winners of the Nations League but will be handed down to the highest ranked team if they qualify through the standard route. Northern Ireland, being ranked 24th after four successive defeats in the Nations League, would then need the 8 teams ahead of them in League B to qualify automatically in order to secure a spot.
Another scenario is that 10 teams from League A will qualify automatically, leaving only two playoff spots taken up by teams from that league and an extra two for League B. One of these spots would be taken up by Northern Ireland because they are the next-best-ranked side available. UEFA rules could even dictate that Northern Ireland play in the League B playoff, in order to avoid a bizarre scenario where giants like France or Spain compete with lower-ranked countries like Ukraine for qualification.
Tactics-wise, Yahoo! Sports UK reported ahead of their qualifying game against Estonia that Northern Ireland have grown to be more of a possession-oriented team. Frustratingly enough for the team, this style of play has resulted in plenty of chances but a failure to convert them in front of the goal. This means that heart-breaking results like Austria’s stoppage-time winner at Windsor Park, just a few months back in the Nations League, have become all too commonplace. If O’Neill’s squad are to have any hope of representing Northern Ireland in Europe, they will have to quickly perfect this style of play and show how much they have grown.
Yet, not all hope is lost for the squad. bwin Betting News notes how Northern Ireland enjoyed a smooth start to their Euro 2020 qualifying campaign, where they eventually beat Estonia and Belarus. Furthermore, O’Neill has even committed to staying on until 2024 and there is hope that the extension will provide the squad with the consistency and depth they need to grow. Given these scenarios, there is a bigger chance that Northern Ireland will make the playoffs but qualifying is an altogether different story. With just a few months left until their match against Germany, the only way Northern Ireland can beat the odds and qualify for the Euros is if they shake off past defeats and keep up the same form they’ve shown against Estonia and Belarus.