So Martin O’Neill’s new Ireland contract is finally signed and sealed — now the manager waits to see what today’s Nations League draw delivers.
The nation might not exactly be holding its breath ahead of the ceremony in Lausanne but there are solid grounds for paying attention all the same.
After all, it’s fair to say that Manchester United supporters were not exactly beside themselves with excitement when their team kicked off its 2016/17 Europa League campaign with a game away to Feyenoord on September 15, 2016.
And reasons to be cheerful would have been even thinner on the ground at the final whistle as they lost that opening game one-nil.
But, 15 matches later, on May 24 2017, the faithful would have been feeling a whole lot happier as United beat Ajax 2-0 in the final.
It was the club’s third trophy of the season and their first Europa League triumph but, more importantly, it meant that they qualified for the Champions League despite a disappointing sixth-place finish in the Premier League..
United’s circuitous journey to European club football’s top table is worth bearing in mind today when Ireland find out who they will meet in the group stages of the inaugural Nations League.
Uefa still have a job of work to do to convince sceptical football fans of the competitive merits of the new competition but while its ostensible raison d’etre is to provide something more substantial than ‘meaningless friendlies’, its real significance is as an alternative route to the Euro 2020 Finals. Whether they make it through the front door of orthodox qualifying or via the back door of the Nations League will matter not one whit should Ireland end up making history by hosting tournament games in Dublin in just over two years’ time.
The Nations League will have its own internal promotion/relegation and finals dynamic but it’s the carrot of four qualifying places for Euro 2020 which makes today’s draw in Lausanne of special interest.
The draw sees 55 teams split into four mini-leagues, one of which, League B, will be further divided, placing Ireland in a three-team group playing home and away games against two of the following sides: Austria, Wales, Russia, Slovakia, Northern Ireland, Denmark, Czech Republic and Turkey.
The top four at the end of the league B campaign will play off in a single leg semi-finals and single leg final format, with the winner going through to the Euro 2020 finals, where they will join the winners of the other three Nations League play-offs and, of course, the 20 nations who earn their spots via the conventional qualifying route.
In short, Ireland will have three ways of qualifying for the Euro 2020 finals: either by finishing first or second in their qualifying group — the draw for which will take place in Dublin next December, with the games due to be played on 10 match days between March and November 2019 — or by emerging as one of the four winners from the Nations League, the play offs for which will take place in March 2020. (Incidentally, if a Nations League group winner has already qualified via the European qualifiers, their spot will go to the next best-ranked team in their league — a back door to the back door, if you like).
Quite apart from whatever pot luck produces today, events in Switzerland will be closely watched by Irish eyes for another compelling reason: to see what manager Martin O’Neill has to say about his renewed commitment to the job.
Last night, it was confirmed that the Derry man has signed a contract extension with the FAI which will take him, Roy Keane, and the rest of the coaching staff, through to the end of Euro 2020. Both O’Neill and Keane will attend today’s draw in Switzerland, following which the manager will talk to the media.
Notwithstanding the briefest of appearances on FAI TV last week to state that his contract situation had been “resolved”, today will be his first engagement with the media since the immediate aftermath of the 5-1 World Cup play-off defeat to Denmark last November, and particular attention will be paid to what he has to say about the recent ‘will-he-won’t-he’ saga which, at one point, seemed to see him on the brink of leaving to take over at Stoke City.
O’Neill will also face questions about the changing face of the Irish squad, with clarification expected on whether some of his senior personnel are set to call time on their international careers.
Today’s Nations League draw will take place at 11am Irish time at the SwissTech Convention Centre in Lausanne and will be streamed live on Uefa.com.
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