Ireland could be drawn against familiar faces in Nations League
O’Neill commits until Euro 2020 ahead of draw for potential backdoor to tournament
Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill may discuss he recent talks with Stoke City at the inaugural Nations League draw in Lausanne, Switzerland. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Having finally, formally extended his stay until the end of the next qualification campaign, Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill will travel to Switzerland for the inaugural Nations League draw which takes place in Lausanne on Wednesday morning.
O’Neill, Roy Keane and the rest of the backroom staff are all said by the FAI to have formally signed on the dotted line with their positions secured until the end of the team’s involvement in Euro 2020. Whether that coincides with the actual finals, though, may end up being determined by how Ireland fare in Uefa’s slightly cobbled together answer to those who have long complained there should be no such thing as friendlies in international football.
Ireland will compete in the new competition’s League B and with O’Neill’s men included in the second seeds, Wales one of the first and Denmark the standout side among the thirds, it all could have a very familiar feel to it.
Austria are possible opponents for Ireland as well but Uefa’s provision that their fellow top seed Russia be kept apart from Ukraine means that there is a greater chance that O’Neill’s men will find themselves on a plane to Moscow before the end of the year.
Once there, though, it would be hard to imagine the stakes ever feeling as a high as they were as when Richard Dunne somehow helped Ireland to a scoreless draw back in 2011. Still, the new competition, while incredibly convoluted, will matter with the places at the next European Championships that previously provided the backdoor of the play-offs now diverted to the section winners in this.
Well, actually, it’s not quite that simple. The teams in League A, which contains the continent’s top ranked sides, will ultimately produce semi-finalists, finalists and a champion. However, with all of the strongest countries likely to have booked their places in the 2020 European Championships via that competition’s qualifying groups proper, one of the weaker teams in League A is, after some play-offs, probably going to be the beneficiary of the bonus spot on offer.
Many of the teams from League B should progress too and so they will be out of the equation when we all return over the course of 2019 for the knock-out stages and, quite separately, qualification play-offs.
There are places too for the winners of Leagues C and D which means one team ranked outside of Europe’s top 50 is guaranteed a place in the European finals with another going to a side from those nations ranked between 25 and 40. The reallocation of these places means that qualification will be fractionally more difficult to achieve for the likes of Ireland and potential to book a place through the new competition will not be something that O’Neill can turn his nose up at.
The other attraction is that if the Irish can top their initial three-team group then they will be promoted to League A the next time around and that should guarantee a couple of very attractive games in Dublin with Germany, Portugal, Belgium and Spain among the leading sides this time around.
The downside, of course, is that with so many more matches containing a more competitive element, managers may be slightly less inclined to throw young players into action so as to give them a taste of international football. Those supporters who feel they have sat through far too many evidently meaningless games in which a strong looking line-up of well-established senior players have appeared to be simply going through the motions might be forgiven for feeling, however, that any change can only be for the best.
O’Neill, in any case, has suggested that he will look to bring new talent through over the coming 12 months and John Delaney fairly firmly suggested last week that that is a priority both for the manager and his employers.
O’Neill, who is due to be at the draw on Wednesday morning, is expected to speak to reporters afterwards when he may address suggestions that his talks with Stoke City, have raised serious questions about his commitment to the Ireland job.
Delaney was adamant when he spoke at the announcement of Aviva’s renewal of its Lansdowne Road naming rights that O’Neill is still focused on the role although he admitted the 65-year-old had required some time to “reflect” on whether he still wanted to be Ireland manager.
He had, in the end, come back keen to sign the contract that had been agreed “in principle”, back in October, the FAI chief executive said, although Delaney acknowledged that if a Premier League club came in for him, and O’Neill wanted to go, then there would be nothing the association could do to stand in his way, whether there was a signed contract or not.