The draw for the 2020/21 UEFA Nations League has taken place in Amsterdam, with Northern Ireland being placed in a tough group in Division B.
The ‘Green and White Army’ have been grouped with Austria, Norway, and Romania in the second edition of the tournament, a difficult draw for Northern Ireland, with an atmospheric Windsor Park expected to drive the team forward.
The first edition of the UEFA Nations League took place in 2018, with Northern Ireland finishing bottom of their group with zero points. They faced Austria and Bosnia and Herzegovina, with manager Michael O’Neill using the matches to blood young players in the Northern Ireland squad. The ‘Green and White Army’ had actually been relegated from league B, but with UEFA expanding the divisions from 12 to 16 teams, all relegated teams across the leagues got a reprieve.
Below I take a look at the opposition in this year’s Nations League, with the matches taking place between September and November 2020.
The top seeds in the group after their name was pulled out from one, it’s a tough match but one Northern Ireland would fancy their chances in. The GAWA could have been faced with the task of conquering the 2018 FIFA World Cup hosts Russia, the Czech Republic or Wales.
Austria’s key threat comes from the defence, with Bayern Munich defender David Alaba being the go-to man for a man of the match performance for the Austrians. Alaba has been deployed in a variety of positions, and though he has spent most of his time in Germany as a left-back, he has also been placed in the heart of the defence and even on the right-wing, like the last time these two sides met in the UEFA Nations League.
RB Salzburg’s Marcel Sabitzer will pace and creativity to the Austrian defence, that will need to be creative to get past the defensive midfield unit of Steven Davis and Corry Evans.
Former West Ham forward Marko Arnautović provides a goalscoring threat for the Austrians, with his time in China appearing to be coming to an end with the new wage cap that has been recently introduced.
The last time these sides met was in the previous edition of the UEFA Nations League, with the Austrians having the edge over Northern Ireland. A 1-0 defeat at the Ernst-Happel-Stadion in Vienna, was followed by a late 2-1 defeat at Windsor Park, relegating the ‘Green and White Army’.
After being pulled from pot 2, Northern Ireland avoided a clash with Scotland, Finland, and Serbia, but this is the team that could cause Northern Ireland the most problems, down to one man: Erling Håland.
The young goal-scoring machine Håland has taken his form from Salzburg to Dortmund and the Northern Ireland centre back pairing are going to have a tough time containing the younger striker. Scoring 40 goals in 32 appearances so far this season, it’s hard to find a brighter talent in world football.
If Norway doesn’t unleash Håland on the Northern Ireland defence, they have Bournemouth striker Joshua King to put pressure on the Northern Ireland backline.
Real Sociedad midfielder Martin Ødegaard, who is on loan from Real Madrid will provide a threat to the Northern Ireland, with the youngster starting to live up to the hype and his potential.
The last time these two sides met was in the 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifying, with Norway edging out Northern Ireland hours after the ‘Green and White Army’ were confirmed to have a playoff spot.
The lowest-seeded team in the group, Romania were the team that most Northern Ireland fans would have wanted to avoid. The Romanians were the first team drawn in division B, ahead of Bulgaria, Isreal, and Hungary.
One of Romania’s main attacking threats is someone that many Northern Ireland fans cheer on each week – Ianis Hagi of Rangers. He was the comeback hero for the Gers against SC Braga and has brought a freshness to the struggling Gers side.
Vlad Chiricheș who was previously at Spurs and Napoli will provide a strong base at the heart of the Romanian defence, making it difficult for the Northern Ireland forwards to get in behind to have a shot on target.
Another name that Premier League fans might be familiar with and now applying his trade in Cyprus is Costel Pantilimon. He is one a host of goalkeepers that the Romanians have to choose from. He hasn’t been called up to represent his country in over a year, so it remains to be seen if the former Manchester City, Sunderland, Watford, and Nottingham Forest goalkeeper will be between the sticks against Northern Ireland.
Last time these sides met was back in 2015, with the sides playing out a 0-0 draw at Windsor Park. Two matchdays before that, it was Romania who got the better of Northern Ireland in what would be the ‘Green and White Army’s’ only defeat of the successful UEFA Euro 2016 qualifying campaign, which saw them qualify as group winners.
What are Northern Ireland’s chances?
The Nations League will be a good thing for Northern Ireland as they will most likely have a new manager by the time this tournament comes around. Unless the situation with Michael O’Neill changes, which is unlikely with the results he is getting with his Stoke City side, someone else will be the hot seat and what better way to hit the ground running in competitive matches that mean very little in terms of major tournaments. Instead of the Nations League being another way into the Euros, with Northern Ireland entering the playoffs despite not getting a point, there are only two playoff spots available for the FIFA World Cup 2022. The two highest-ranked non-automatic qualifiers from the main qualifying campaign, getting the two play-off spots.
All three matches are going to be tough, but I do expect Northern Ireland to pick up some points and have a good go at topping the group. Wins would be expected at home, and the plan would be to pick up as many points on the road as possible, as well as giving the new manager (if there is one) time to figure out what he wants to do with his new squad.