Football/Soccer

Potential 'All-Ireland' play-off final next March for Euro 2020 place

Republic of Ireland captain Seamus Coleman (left) takes on Northern Ireland's Stuart Dallas in the Dublin friendly last year. The teams could meet in a play-off for a Euro 2020 place next March.

THE prospect of an all-Ireland play-off for a Euro 2020 place has increased – along with a trip to Sarajevo for one of the Irish teams.

If the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland were both to be in the League B play-offs and win their respective semi-finals then there would be a draw made next month to decide the venue for the play-off venue. Dublin’s status as one of the Euro 2020 host cities might have a bearing on that, though.

Although the Republic of Ireland remain top of Group D and only need to win their last match to ensure automatic qualification, at home, that is against unbeaten Denmark, who thrashed them 5-1 in Dublin in a play-off second leg for the last World Cup. The sides have drawn their last three meetings, with two goalless games in the Nations League and a 1-1 draw in the Euro qualifier in Copenhagen back in June of this year.

Northern Ireland are out of the automatic qualification spots in Group C and appear unlikely to re-enter them with their remaining games at home to group leaders the Netherlands and then away to Germany.

If Mick McCarthy’s men do slip out of the top two places in their section then they would almost certainly go into the Nations League play-offs next March – where they could meet Michael O’Neill’s side in the League B Final.

Both Irish teams would probably need to win play-off semi-finals first, with those games likely to be away from home as they were the two teams with the poorest records during League B.

A complicating factor – as if one were needed – is that Northern Ireland could be drawn into the League A play-off path, assuming that Switzerland (who reached the League A Finals earlier this year) do qualify automatically out of the Republic’s group.

That might be a boost for the North, as it might mean theoretically easier opposition: at the moment, that’s likely to be one of Bulgaria, Israel, or Romania. The Bulgarians are currently ranked 62nd in the world, Israel 86th, although Romania are at 31st, just above NI in 33rd.

However, as Romania is one of the 12 host nations for Euro 2020 that could ensure their elevation into the League A route.

The down side of Dublin being one of the host cities is that the Republic of Ireland are unlikely to be moved into the potentially easier League A path, instead staying in League B.

The up side of that is that their most likely opponents in a League B semi-final would be Bosnia & Herzegovina, whom they beat in a two-legged play-off for Euro 2016. That match would be in Sarajevo but Ireland would still fancy their chances against a team that is currently fourth in Group J and ranked 46th in the world.

As it stands, Sarajevo is set to be Northern Ireland’s destination, to play the team who beat them twice in the Nations League last year, albeit fortuitously on both occasions.

The other most likely opponents for NI are Slovakia, although they are still in contention to qualify directly from a closely-fought Group E. That is currently led by Croatia, with Hungary in second spot and Wales still in the running.

If the Welsh don’t win their last two group games (in Azerbaijan and then home to Hungary) then Ryan Giggs’s side could host a play-off match next March, perhaps against Slovakia. The latter might also end up hosting the Republic of Ireland in the play-offs.

Bosnia and Herzegovina are guaranteed a place in the play-offs after topping Group 3 in Nations League B, and appear highly unlikely to qualify automatically – Italy have already secured their place while Finland are almost there.

The Bosnians are also certain of a home tie as the best performers in League B.

Each play-off path will feature two single-leg semi-finals, and one single-leg final, taking place in late March 2020. Based on the Nations League rankings, the best-ranked team will host the fourth-ranked team, and the second-ranked team will host the third-ranked team. The host of the final will be decided by a draw on November 22 between the two semi-final pairings.

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