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Explainer: How Ireland can top Nations League group and improve their Euro 2024 seeding

We also explain how Ireland can use the Nations League to earn a play-off for the Euros.

Stephen Kenny and assistant Keith Andrews.
Stephen Kenny and assistant Keith Andrews.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

We can’t still top this Nations League group, can we? 

Yes…just about. 

Stephen Kenny boldly stated Ireland’s ambition to top their Nations League group before the draw was made, before back-to-back defeats away to Armenia and at home to Ukraine seemed to destroy that target. 

It’s not quite over yet, though. Ireland can still top the group, but they will need to win both of the remaining games, against Scotland at Hampden Park on Saturday and Armenia in Dublin on Tuesday, and hope results elsewhere go their way. Recent history offers little hope: Ireland have yet to win back-to-back competitive games under Kenny. 

But if they finally tick that box and win their own games, Ireland also need Ukraine to either draw or lose away to Armenia on Saturday afternoon, and then they need Ukraine vs Scotland to end in a draw next Tuesday night.

That’s because teams level on points are separated by their head-to-head records. In this scenario, Ireland would top the group and finish level on 10 points with Scotland, but ahead of them thanks to a superior head-to-head record. Ukraine would be third on nine points. Because Ukraine have a superior head-to-head record against Ireland, this is the only scenario in which Ireland can still top the group. 

The Armenia/Ukraine game kicks off at 2pm on Saturday, meaning Ireland will arrive at Hampden Park knowing whether this dreams remain alive. 

What’s the benefit of topping the group?  

Most obvious is promotion to League A for the next Nations League campaign, which will bring a trio of money-spinning home games against some of Europe’s biggest sides. 

That aside, finishing top of the group would guarantee a place as second seeds in the qualifying draw for Euro 2024, which takes place on Sunday, 9 October. 

The seedings for that draw are determined by Nations League rankings. Given Germany don’t have to qualify for a tournament they are hosting, Pot One will consist of the four group winners in League A along with the next six best-ranked sides. (If Germany win their Nations League group, then Pot One will include three group winners and the next seven-best sides.)

That means the remaining five sides in League A will be among the second seeds at the Euros draw, and that pot will be completed with the four group winners in League B, along with League B’s best-ranked runner-up. 

There is a chance Ireland could sneak into the second pot even if they finish second in their group, but that will hinge on a number of results going their way. 

What might curiously help them is the opening-day defeat to Armenia. Because Russia were kicked out of the competition and thus reduced one group to three teams, the results against the bottom side in the three remaining four-team groups (which includes Ireland’s) are discounted when ranking sides. Armenia are currently the bottom side in Ireland’s group. 

Becoming second seeds in the qualifier draw by finishing second in the Nations League group remains a possibility for Ireland, but it’s highly remote. 

Being second seeds in the Euros qualifier draw would be an enormous boost as the top two sides in each of the groups qualify directly for the Euros. Plus, being third seeds makes real the prospect of a nightmare draw: France and England are both set to be second seeds, as things stand. 

spitaly-milan-football-uefa-nations-league-final-france-vs-spain France are Nations League champions. Source: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

Can we get a Euros play-off through the Nations League?

Yes.

You may remember this is how Ireland ended up playing Slovakia in a semi-final play-off for Euro 2020: a quirk of the structure meant that Ireland got a play-off despite finishing bottom of a three-team group without winning a game. 

The system has been tweaked to avoid the kind of situation Ireland found themselves for Euro 2020, in which they were rewarded for being hopeless in the Nations League.  

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Three sides will qualify for Euro 2024 through the Nations League play-offs, with play-off spots offered to 12 teams. One side from each of League A, B, and C will be guaranteed to qualify for the Euros through the play-offs. 

That play-off spot is initially awarded to each group winner of Leagues A, B, and C, but if that side qualifies automatically for the Euros, then it will be passed down to the next best-ranked side across all the groups in that league. 

If Ireland end up topping their Nations League group, they’ll be guaranteed a play-off spot. 

If Ireland don’t top their group, they’ll be reliant on a sufficient number of sides above them qualifying automatically for the Euros to hand them down their ticket to the play-offs. 

Ireland have a good chance of earning this play-off: they just need to be among the four highest-ranked sides in League B who haven’t already qualified for the Euros.

A win against Scotland on Saturday would be crucial in this regard, as the subsequent result against Armenia – assuming they finish bottom – will be disregarded for this ranking too. (This again has the benefit of rendering Ireland’s defeat in Armenia moot.) 

So in conclusion, Ireland can still top their Nations League group and guarantee themselves promotion, a higher Euro 2024 seeding and a Euro 2024 play-off.

That is an unlikely prospect, though, and so will be reliant on results elsewhere to earn the latter two prizes. The precise results needed will become clearer ahead of Tuesday’s final round of games, but the more points Ireland gather over the next two games, the rosier that outlook will be. 

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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