Ireland U21 manager Jim Crawford says he sees benefits in UEFA’s decision to “split” next year’s European Championships finals.
Seeking to avoid an extended tournament in a busy summer schedule, the finals will be divided over two periods – separated by two months – into the group and knock-out stages, with the original venues of Hungary and Slovenia still hosting both parts of the tournament.
Under the radical new format, qualification play-offs have also been abandoned and, instead, the nine group-winners and five best runners-up will automatically progress to join the hosts in a penultimate stage of four groups of four, from March 24 to 31 March, in Hungary and Slovenia.
The four group winners and the four runners-up will then qualify for the final tournament which will be played as a straight knock-out final eight (quarter-finals and semi-finals in Hungary and Slovenia and the final in Ljubljana) from May 31 to June 6 June 2021.
Having impressed under Stephen Kenny in the campaign so far, Ireland currently sit atop their qualifying Group 1 with three games remaining, albeit having played two games more than Italy in second place and Iceland in third.
"I can see many benefits to the change in format,” said Crawford, who has been tasked with taking over from Kenny to try to complete the job of a first-ever qualification at this level for Ireland.
“Having that break in between the group stage and the knock-out phase, if we were to progress to that stage, it would give us a great opportunity to recover and go again.
During a finals tournament, you can pick up a number of injuries and fatigue can set in so to have a break in between the two stages could work in your favour.
"It doesn't change the focus for us. We're looking to win the remaining group games and that remains the challenge. We'll be very clear with the players going into each match that maximum points is the goal.
"I'm still digesting the changes but nothing changes in regards to the mindset. The fact we've only got three matches remaining in qualifying whilst a lot of teams are squeezing in their fixtures could also work in our favour but we need to remain concentrated on what we need to do."
The qualification competition, which has been in cold storage since last November, will finish in September, October, and November of this year, with the dates for Ireland’s remaining matches against Italy, Iceland, and Luxembourg to be confirmed in the coming weeks.