Nations League draw: Ireland set to be tested by Ukraine, Scotland and Armenia

Stephen Kenny’s side avoid some of the big guns but will have work cut out to win group

Ireland manager Stephen Kenny celebrates after with goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu after the win away to Azerbaijan in October. Photo: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho

Drawing Scotland and Ukraine hardly equates to Stephen Kenny getting the rub of the green as next summer’s Nations League promises to test the ambitious Republic of Ireland manager to the limit.

Kenny set high standards for his management and young squad by stating last October that Ireland topping their group in Nations League B would provide irrefutable proof of improvement en route to qualifying for the 2024 European Championships in Germany.

It would certainly ensure a second seed ahead of the Euros qualification draw and might even secure an alternative route for Joxer to return to Stuttgart 36 years later as each group winner is expected to qualify for the Euro 2024 playoffs.

Armenia are clearly no pushovers as the bottom seeds in Ireland’s group, ahead of matches to be played next June and September with fixtures to be confirmed on Friday morning. They finished fourth in their World Cup qualification campaign on 12 points behind Germany, North Macedonia and Romania.


But it is trips to Hampden Park and Kiev that will test the mettle of the ever expanding Kenny project. The 50-year-old and his assistant coaches Keith Andrews, Dean Kiely and Anthony Barry are expected to sign two-year contract extensions early in the New Year.

It is also believed that FAI chief executive Jonathan Hill is negotiating a streamlined deal for the entire management, which may prove difficult as Barry and Kiely double job as coaches at Chelsea and Crystal Palace respectively.

“Our ambition is to win the group and I think it’s realistic to do that,” said Kenny after the 4-0 thumping of Qatar when Callum Robinson scored a hat-trick. “I reckon that if we apply ourselves and continue to improve and players get more exposure, we can strive to do that. We’ll be taking it extremely seriously by prioritising it.”

This quoted paragraph promises to follow him around in 2022. The Nations League results - Ireland play 10 matches in 2022, including two friendlies in March - could have consequences for the current management as any talk of needing more time to develop and integrate young players like Gavin Bazunu, Andrew Omobamidele and Jason Knight has surely passed.

The draw could be worse. Ireland avoided Sweden, Serbia and Norway although Ukraine and Scotland would consider themselves of a similar standard. Both expect to be using the third iteration of Uefa’s attempt to eradicate “friendlies” as preparation for next year’s World Cup.

Ukraine finished second in Group D, six points behind France, while Scotland were four points shy of Group F winners Denmark, and ironically they meet in the play-off semi-finals next March to see who makes it to Qatar 2022.

“That will be an interesting game to see,” said Kenny.

“My first impression is that it is a really competitive group. Obviously Ukraine getting to the quarter-finals of the Euros was a good achievement, Scotland have won their last six games and Armenia finished ahead of Iceland recently in their World Cup qualifying group so all of the teams are capable of taking points off each other so it is very exciting from our point of view.

“The way we have built this team over the last year has been to qualify for Germany 2024. That is the major objective. One of the things about the Nations League is winning the group or possibly finishing second could give us a play off for the Euros. That’s motivation enough.”

Kenny, with four wins from 20 games in charge, albeit during a turbulent, pandemic-disrupted period, has been able to lean into a more positive form guide in recent weeks.

“We can see the improvement in our own team as, apart from Ronaldo’s 97th minute winner, when he broke the world record, that’s our only defeat in the last 10 games.

“We can see the progress. Since March we have scored 20 goals. It is a young, emerging team and we are getting better. It’s an exciting period for us to have four games over 10, 11 days in June.”

Unlike the FAI, Northern Ireland have already awarded manager Ian Baraclough a new contract to rebuild ahead of Germany 2024. Having finished third in their World Cup qualification group behind Switzerland and Italy, they will seek promotion from Nations League C with games against Greece, Kosovo and Cyprus or Estonia.

The most eye-catching group has to be Germany, Italy, England and, controversially Hungary, who are set to meet over the four match days in June and two more in September, ahead of the first ever winter World Cup in the Middle East.

Hungary will have to play their matches in Budapest without supporters after racist chants directed at English players Raheem Sterling and Jude Bellingham during last September’s World Cup qualifier at the Puskás Aréna.

Assessing Ireland’s opponents


Andriy Shevchenko - the Zbirna’s legendary top goal scorer - stepped down as national manager after last summer’s Euros, having guided the team to the quarter-finals after a dramatic defeat of Sweden only to be knocked out by England. Oleksandr Petrakov took over after coaching all the way up the Ukraine Federation’s underage system. Backboned by Dynamo Kiev players, there is a sprinkle of Premier League glitter in West Ham’s Andriy Yarmolenko and Manchester City’s Oleksandr Zinchenko.

Fifa ranking: 25


Billy Gilmour is the sort of generational British talent that Scotland had almost forgot to produce. The 20-year-old is currently on loan from Chelsea to Norwich City where he trains daily alongside Adam Idah and Andrew Omobamidele. So at least everyone is forewarned about the gem at Steve Clarke’s disposal. Manchester United’s Scott McTominay, Aston Villa’s John McGinn and Liverpool’s dashing fullback Andy Robertson will seek to confirm their superiority over Ireland.

Fifa ranking: 38


Oft travelled La Liga coach Joaquín Caparrós will bring a decent challenge to Dublin with Armenia’s wins over Iceland and Romania slightly overshadowed by thumpings home and away to Germany in an otherwise respectable World Cup qualification campaign. Former Manchester United midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan captains a hardy bunch of football nomads spread around the globe from Boca Juniors to Roma.

Fifa ranking: 92

Nations League 2022/23

League A

A1: France, Denmark, Croatia, Austria

A2: Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, Czech Repblic

A3: Italy, Germany, England, Hungary

A4: Belgium, Netherlands, Poland, Wales

League B

B1: Ukraine, Scotland, Republic of Ireland, Armenia

B2: Iceland, Russia, Israel, Albania

B3: Bosnia & Herzegovina, Finland, Romania, Montenegro

B4: Sweden, Norway, Serbia, Slovenia

League C

C1: Turkey, Luxembourg, Lithuania, Faroe Islands

C2: Northern Ireland, Greece, Kosovo, Cyprus/Estonia

C3: Slovakia, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan/Moldova

C4: Bulgaria, North Macedonia, Georgia, Gibraltar

League D

D1: Lichtenstein, Kazakhstan/Moldova, Latvia, Andorra

D2: Malta, Cyprus/Estonia, San Marino