Northern Ireland barely able to draw breath after gutting Euro 2020 switch
A FIVE-TO-ONE shot to the guts left Northern Ireland looking pained and struggling to survive before the Euro 2020 qualifiers even kick off.
There was a collective gasp in the auditorium when Germany, the undoubted top team in pot 2, were paired with their neighbours the Netherlands, who had contributed to their relegation from Uefa Nations League A.
A massive “Awwww” then sounded when the Republic of Ireland were drawn out to join those two European giants in Group C – but their host status for Euro 2020 saved them, and instead Northern Ireland were condemned to that ‘Group of Death’.
NI boss Michael O’Neill made no attempt to sugar-coat the bitter taste of Group C, which was filled by two tricky eastern European opponents, Estonia and Belarus, although he had to swallow it.
F-words were surely ready to burst from O’Neill’s lips; the only straws he could clutch at were ‘fixtures’, ‘five-team group’, and ‘friendlies’.
“It’s a little bit unfair, the nature of it,” he said. “I understand the rationale behind it, but I do think it’s a little bit unfair, to be honest, the fact that you’re hosting the tournament gets you certain privileges in the draw.
“And that’s not aimed at the Republic of Ireland, that’s Scotland as well, who could easily have been in that group as well.
“When that group came out, with Germany and Holland initially, there were teams who knew they couldn’t be in that group – but we weren’t one of them.”
With Bulgaria and Serbia already pulled out of pot 3 into the first two groups, and the Republic of Ireland and Scotland not allowed to go into Group C, there were six teams left sweating – and seconds later it was Northern Ireland who suffered.
O’Neill managed to pull out one positive, even though he admitted what had happened was “cruel”, adding that “It’s probably the most difficult group.
“The fact that it’s a five-team group, I’m pleased about that. It means, depending on the fixtures, we may only have three double-headers, as opposed to the potential of five double-headers, so that’s something that may work in our favour, if the fixtures are kind.
“It’s going to be very difficult for us to put two massive performances together, against, say, Holland and Germany. So, hopefully, we don’t have that scenario. That might be the wee bit of good fortune that we get out of today.”
O’Neill believes that performances at Windsor Park will be key to the chances of finishing in the top two:
“It is what it is, we just have to get on with it. There are going to be some massive games and that’s what we have to look forward to - Germany again and a Holland rejuvenated under Ronald Koeman is going to be huge test.
“We have to make sure we take maximum points if possible off Belarus and Estonia to give ourselves a chance. Home form is going to be vital, and we’ll have a couple of massive nights, potentially, in Belfast to give ourselves a chance of qualification.”
A more attacking approach did not pay off during the Nations League but O’Neill said that was always likely to change against better teams anyway:
“We’ll assess the games when they come. You have to assess the game based on what you need at that point in time.
“We want to continue in the style and tactically as we have been – but we always knew that when we came up against the top teams in Europe that we’d have to maybe tailor that somewhat. That will be the case again when we come to the qualifiers in March”.