Play-offs hold the Euro 2020 qualification key for both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland

While English eyes are focussed on Nations League glory, their neighbours have crucial games in the attempt to qualify for Euro2020.

Fans may not be aware that upcoming matches in other groups may have a crucial bearing on their own country’s chances of qualifying.

Qualification from the ten groups is pretty straightforward – the top two progress to the finals. The remaining places are then allocated to playoff winners.

Qualification for these playoffs is based on UEFA Nations League rankings, hence England and Scotland are already guaranteed at least a playoff even if they lose every qualifier.

England almost certainly will not need it, Scotland most likely will.

Four playoff spots

There is a playoff for each UEFA Nations League A to D. These playoffs involve the four highest ranked countries that do not qualify automatically.

The two highest ranked of the four will also enjoy home advantage in one-legged semi-finals. The final is played as a single game with home advantage decided by lottery.

Scotland are assured of a home semi-final but may want to keep an eye on other groups.

Serbia have a talented squad and it is probably in Scotland’s best interests that they qualify directly for the finals.

The likes of Norway, Finland or Bulgaria would appear, on paper, to offer a much more manageable route to the finals.

Serbia’s only outing so far was a creditable away point versus group favourites Portugal. Next up is a trip to Lviv to face Ukraine who also earned a crucial point in Lisbon.

Despite their poor start Portugal will be expected to do enough to qualify.

While Scotland will cheer on Serbia, their Celtic cousins should be supporting the Ukranians.

All are ranked below Ukraine in League B, so not only do they need the likes of Ukraine to qualify directly to ensure a playoff spot, they also would be hoping for a kinder semi-final than a trip to Ukraine.

The Ukrainians are assured of a home semi-final and would be very dangerous playoff opponents.

Current UEFA rankings

UEFA have published the overall rankings here. In general, both Irelands and Wales need as many of the countries ranked above them to qualify as possible.

If more than eight countries in League A qualify directly then sides from lower leagues move up to take the playoff spots.

Celtic prospects

Wales have a tricky qualifying group with world cup finalists Croatia, Slovakia and a resurgent Hungary in the mix.

Wales are ranked 7th in League B and 19th overall; hence they need 11 of the higher ranked teams to qualify directly, or just three of the higher ranked League B sides. This will certainly happen.

Indeed, the Welsh will also be eyeing the prospect of a home semi-final if five of the higher ranked League B sides qualify directly.

The Irish sides are ranked 23rd and 24th respectively. But despite perfect starts, direct qualification will be very difficult. Northern Ireland need to somehow finish ahead of either Germany or the Netherlands.

The Republic have it slightly easier, but doing better than Denmark or Switzerland is still a big ask.

Northern Ireland need 16 of the 23 higher ranked countries to qualify directly to ensure the backup of a playoff spot.

If all 20 qualifiers prove to be higher ranked nations then there is the highly unlikely prospect of  home semi-final at “Fortress Windsor.”

South of the border they need 15 of the better nations to qualify directly.

Crucial groups for the Irish include the Czechs coming through in Group A, Portugal and Ukraine edging out Serbia in Group B and Hungary failing to come out of Group E. Direct qualification for the likes of Sweden, Austria and Bosnia would also be welcomed by the ‘Boys in Green’.

Belgium and Russia sending Scotland to the playoffs would also be seen as a positive result.

An All-Ireland meeting?

The games this weekend will make things clearer, but at this point both Irelands look like having the safety net of a playoff.

It is highly improbable that Northern Ireland would have travel to Dublin for a semi-final; however there is every chance they could be in opposite semi-finals.

Such a scenario would create the tantalising prospect of meeting in a “one off” game with a place in Euro2020 as the prize, evoking memories of 1993 for some Irish fans old enough to remember.

What a game that would be; one has to wonder if either Michael O’Neill or Mick McCarthy would take that now.

The Author

Gary Spain

Limerick born, Dublin based fan of Limerick FC and the Republic of Ireland national team. Gary has a keen interest in football across the island of Ireland and worldwide. He is a contributor to the Republic of Ireland and Limerick FC programmes and to Northern Ireland Football magazine.

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