The Euro 2020 qualifying campaign is drawing ever closer to its climax and, as such, the muddied waters of the potential path to the play-offs are becoming slightly clearer.
Even the most optimistic members of the Green and White Army will concede that gaining automatic qualification for Euro 2020 is, shall we say, unlikely for Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland have been the victims of a tough group containing both Germany and the Netherlands.
They fell out of the automatic spots in October after an agonizing late defeat to the Netherlands, and face a tough task to get back in.
Realistically, to qualify, Michael O’Neill’s men probably need to win their final two fixtures. Except that the final two fixtures include a home game against the Netherlands and another heavyweight clash against the Germans in their own backyard. Having lost to both sides in the first round of fixtures, there’s nothing suggesting that Northern Ireland can do so this time around.
With Germany and the Netherlands both on 15 points and Northern Ireland in third place with 12 points (BBC), one win against both teams would leave them relying on an unlikely slip-up from Germany at home to Belarus or Holland against Estonia. Which is very unlikely in the circumstances.
Although they finished bottom of their Nations League group, there is still a lifeline to feature in the playoffs as a result of teams from the top league having qualified automatically.
Manager O’Neill has also left to join Stoke, but he will still take charge of the final qualifiers as well as any potential play-offs.
Whether this could prove to be a good move for Northern Ireland based on current circumstances would be known in due time. Leicester City star and defender for the Northern Ireland team did claim he was a bit confused with the whole managerial situation.
Evans said as quoted by the Telegraph: “It’s not really a changing of the guard because he is still there. I don’t fully understand how it’s going to work. If we get a play off or not, will he be in charge? It’s been said out there he will be in charge of those games. If we qualify for the Euros, will he be in charge?”
It allows the IFA to take their time now. I’m sure they’ll pick the right man for the job.
“They made an unbelievable appointment in Michael and he’s spoken before about how they gave him time and backed him during a time of transition and difficulty at the start of his managerial career with Northern Ireland.”
With the Netherlands eager to seal their qualifying campaign coupled with Germany’s strong form on home soil, the most realistic chance for the Green and White Army now seems to be the play-offs.
So how likely is it Northern Ireland will make the playoffs?
In short, it is very likely that Northern Ireland will make the playoffs.
They will be in the play-offs if 16 of the 20 automatic qualifiers come from Nations Leagues A and B. Given that those are, by definition, the top teams, that shouldn’t be too big an ask.
To put it another way, unless five teams from Leagues C or D seal automatic qualification, Northern Ireland will get a playoff spot.