In the midst of a World Cup 2018 that has been packed with so many surprises, not least with many of the favourites at the tournament taking a tumble against the lesser fancied teams, it’s very hard not to feel a giant twinge of regret that Ireland aren’t there, mixing it up in Russia. But like every tournament the Boys in Green will be back in international action in September, as a new adventure begins with the UEFA Nations League.
Whilst the format is somewhat convoluted and complex in a variety respects, the easiest aspect to grasp is that the UEFA Nations League features promotion and relegation. The idea for the competition itself is pretty sound because, instead of what are often regarded as meaningless friendlies, which will be reduced in number compared to previous years, international teams in Europe will have a packed fixture list of competitive matches to focus on instead.
We were seeded among the second tier of international teams in League B, drawn alongside Denmark and Wales in Group 4 (The Groundhogs Day group). In retrospect, the draw could have been much tougher looking at the other nations in League B, and for Irish fans planning to make the away trips, at least these are destinations within easy striking distance.
Ahead of the first game against Wales in Cardiff on 6th September, football betting for the UEFA Nations League has the Boys in Green priced at 5/2 odds to win our group, which is the same as Wales. Denmark are strongly tipped as the favourites to win Group 4, largely thanks to their solid level of performance at the World Cup, reaching the round of 16 and eventually being eliminated from the tournament by Croatia on penalties. Let’s hope the Danes suffer a WC hangover when we play them.
Of course, the UEFA Nations League could also prove to be a double-edged sword for us. Win Group 4 and we will be looking forward to a seat at the top table of European international football, with promotion to League A. However, finish bottom of the group and there’s the daunting prospect of sliding down to League C, into a relative no-man’s land of nations that could take years to escape.
There is quite literally no comfort zone in the new European competition. The most ambitious fans will be hoping that Martin O’Neill’s team will be aiming to win our group, although the primary objective must be to avoid relegation at all costs. Along with the additional difficulties that relegation would present for the future, there’s also the factor that at least treading water and finishing second, we could still earn a back-door route to EURO 2020.
The importance of this alternate path to qualifying for the EURO 2020 finals cannot be understated, either. Should we fail to impress in our EURO 2020 qualification group, the performances in the UEFA Nations League could at least provide an alternative path to reaching the tournament finals, albeit through a series of play-off matches. Arguably, there’s never been more at stake competitively for our national team, which is both thrilling and very daunting at the same time.