Twenty nations have booked their places at next summer’s postponed European Championships, but for another 16 teams qualification hangs in the balance as they contest the playoffs this week. Here we preview the mini qualifying tournament and look at who might make up the final four places at Europe’s summer jamboree.
The top two teams from each of Euro 2020’s ten qualifying groups have confirmed their places at the finals tournament. The remaining four places will be determined by playoff. Qualification spots for the playoffs were awarded based on results gained back in 2018’s Nations League tournament.
The playoffs are divided into four pathways based on the leagues from which the teams qualified in the Nations League, however as only one team from League A needed a playoff spot three teams from League C were added to playoff path A. Each pathway will consists of a pair of one legged semi-finals followed by a one off final to determine which four teams qualify.
Playoff Path A (Winner of Hungary vs Bulgaria hosts final)
Iceland vs Romania
After their Euro 2016 dream and World Cup adventure reality has bitten for Iceland. They were battered in the Nations League and were edged out by Turkey and France in Euro qualifying. The biggest concern for coach Erik Hamren is the poor form of star man Gylfi Sigurdsson who’s struggled to click at Everton. On a more positive note they are at home where only France managed to beat them in qualifying and they showed last month against England they remain tough to break down.
Romania’s qualifying campaign ended on a sour note with a 5-0 hammering from Spain. They don’t have the stars of yesteryear but they do have some promising young talent in the likes of Ianis Hagi and George Puscas, whilst veteran striker Caludiu Keseru has been in good form. Bucharest is a host city for the finals, but Romania’s away form is poor and they now have to win twice on the road to qualify.
Prediction: For all their problems Iceland remain a tough proposition and their direct style will make it an uncomfortable night for Romania who may struggle to impose their passing game Iceland 1-0 Romania
Bulgaria vs Hungary
Bulgaria’s qualification campaign will be chiefly remembered for the shocking racist abuse from their fans and bizarre statements of denial from their officials. On the pitch things weren’t much better, picking up just one win from eight games. In has come new coach Georgi Dermendzhiev to try and rebuild on the pitch whilst political pressure has lead to resignations at the Bulgarian Football Union. There’s not a lot for Dermendzhiev to work with, a situation made worse by the retirement of Ivelin Popov.
Budapest will be a host city for Euro 2020, making it vital for Hungary to qualify for their second straight Euros. They took their campaign in Group E to the wire, but defeat in Wales condemned them to the playoffs. RB Leipzig duo Peter Gulacsi and Willi Orban remain key figures in defence. Goalscoring is a problem with Orban one of only two players to score more than once in their 8 match qualification campaign.
Prediction: Bulgaria are rebuilding and Hungary should be too strong for them defensively, but they may struggle to score. This won’t be a classic but Hungary should do enough: Bulgaria 0-1 Hungary
And the Final… Home advantage could be key and Hungary look slight favourites to win through a tight final.
Playoff Path B (winner of Bosnia vs N.Ireland hosts final)
Bosnia & Herzegovina vs Northern Ireland
Bosnia saw the spoils of their Nations League promotion by drawing plumb games against Italy and Holland in this season’s competition. The consequence of their disastrous Euro 2020 campaign is a home playoff against Northern Ireland. They can play tidy, creative football with Miralem Pjanic pulling the strings and they still have Edin Dezeko to put the chances away. It was their poor away form that cost them automatic qualification, making home advantage (even without a crowd) vital to their hopes of a first European finals.
Things have changed radically since the qualifying campaign ended, and more for Northern Ireland than most teams. Having given Germany and Holland a run for their money, Michael O’Neill has left and new manager Ian Baraclough has endured a baptism of fire, on the wrong end of a 5-1 thrashing from Norway. Baraclough does have a full strength squad to chose from with the versatile Stuart Dallas in particularly good form and this team has repeatedly shown it’s greater than the sum of its parts.
Prediction: Northern Ireland will make life hard for Bosnia, but the Bosnians do have quality going forward whilst Northern Ireland will look to frustrate and pinch a goal on the break. Bosnia 3-1 Northern Ireland
Slovakia vs Republic of Ireland
Slovakia have the unfortunate habit of coming up just short in qualifying, narrowly missing out on first the World Cup playoffs and then European qualification. As ever Marek Hamsik, now playing his club football in China is paramount to their hopes. However Slovakia have a new hope in young striker Robert Bozenik. The 20-year-old moved from domestic football to Feyenoord in January and is starting to make his mark in Holland as well as the national team. Defensively they will be without injured goalkeeper Martin Dubravka but centre back Milan Skriniar is fit and a key presence, but Slovakia have just one clean sheet in their last eleven games.
It’s a new dawn for the Republic of Ireland with new boss Stephen Kenny looking to offer a more innovative style of football. However familiar failings were apparent in his first two games last month with Ireland mustering just one goal. The squad is battle hardened and Callum Robinson’s good start to the season with West Brom could provide some much needed penetration in attack, however against a skillful team their usually reliable defence will be key,
Prediction: Slovakia are an erratic side and Ireland will feel they’ve already held better teams in qualifying. Ireland have a miserable record in the playoffs but they don’t concede many and look to have enough to nick a a narrow win: Slovakia 0-1 Rep.Ireland
And the Final…Bosnia haven’t showed their best form in qualifying but with home advantage and attacking options should have enough to edge Ireland.
Playoff Path C(winner of Norway v Serbia to host final)
Scotland vs Israel
Once a World Cup regular, Scotland are aiming to qualify for a major tournament for the first time this century. There’s added incentive this time with Hampden Park a host venue and a dust up with Auld Enemy at Wembley the reward for qualification.
However after Nations League promotion came a shambolic qualifying campaign that saw Alex McLeish fired and Steve Clarke parachuted in. Despite a trio of Covid withdrawals from his team, Clarke has talent to work with in the likes of Andy Robertson, John McGinn and Scott McTominay. Clarke needs to solve Scotland’s longstanding central defensive issues, with Liam Cooper drafted in to hold the fort. However despite their defensive issues Scotland will expect to at least progress to the the playoff final.
Israel are hoping to qualify for their first major tournament but blew a promising position in qualifying, losing four of their last five matches. Few players found better form in qualifying than Israel striker Eran Zahavi whose mark of 11 goals was bettered only by Harry Kane. With few star names to call on and facing two away games to qualify, it looks a tough ask for Israel to qualify.
Prediction: These two have become familiar foes of late, with James Forrest’s hat trick seeing Scotland edge the 2018 Nations League and these two played out a 1-1 draw just a month ago. With Israel out of form, Scotland should have just enough to progress: Scotland 2-1 Israel
Norway vs Serbia
Norway haven’t qualified for a major tournament since Euro 2000, but now have one of the most promising young sides in Europe. The headline act is inevitably Erling Braut Haaland, who scored his first three international goals last month. Haaland isn’t the only burgeoning superstar for Norway with Martin Odegaard now aged 21 showing the sort of form form that persuaded Real Madrid to take him to Spain back in 2015. Norway are as ever a solid side but with the creativity of Odegaard and Haaland forming a promising strike partnership with Alexander Sorloth, Norway are a team to watch.
Serbia are more seasoned campaigners having qualified for the last World Cup and giving Brazil and Switzerland a run for their money, whilst the Euro qualifiers saw them take Portugal to the wire in a close group. The previous season’s Haaland was Serbian striker Luka Jovic but he’s struggled since moving to Real Madrid. Fortunately for Serbia Aleksandar Mitrovic is looking sharp with Fulham and there’s an impressive supporting cast in the likes of Dusan Tadic and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic. The problems will come at the other end of the pitch where Serbia conceded too many in qualifying and will be without midfield backstop Nemanja Matic.
Prediction:This could be a thriller with attacking talent on show for both teams. The spotlight will inevitably fall on Haaland but this could be Odegaard’s moment to shine against an ageing Serbian backline. Prediction Norway 3-2 Serbia
And the Final..Scotland’s away record isn’t great and Norway have been a team on the rise since the World Cup. Norway to progress.
Playoff Path D
Georgia vs Belarus
For the teams from Nations League D, the playoffs will provide someone with their debut at a major finals. Georgia start as favourites with home advantage for both the semi and potential final. Tblisi proved a difficult place to go in qualifying with both Denmark and Ireland held to 0-0 draws. Georgia are defensively resolute and hard to break down, however as favourites the onus is on them to attack, they don’t score many but MLS star Valeri Qazaishvili does provide a goal threat from midfield.
Belarus endured a miserable qualifying campaign in a tough group that included Germany, Holland and Northern Ireland. They avoided being embarrassed by their more illustrious rivals but only managed one win and four goals. The Nations League proved a happier experience as Belarus eased passed the lesser lights to go unbeaten without conceding a goal. The large BATE Borisov contingent are a key element of a largely home based squad but Krasnodar’s Alyaksandr Martynovich provides vital experience and leadership at the base of defence.
Prediction: This won’t be pretty! Georgia are strong enough defensively to see Belarus off, but their lack of cutting edge will make this an attritional game: Georgia 1-0 Belarus
North Macedonia vs Kosovo
North Macedonia made a decent fist of a middleweight qualifying group and went unbeaten in the Nations League. They have plenty of players in Europe’s bigger leagues but young Napoli midfielder Elif Elmas who proved a star turn in qualifying, is currently suffering from Covid. The backline is anchored by goalkeeper Stole Dimitrievski and Sporting Lisbon’s defender Stefan Ristovski and they have a national icon in attack.
At 37 Goran Pandev has been a familiar face in Serie A for almost two decades, playing in Inter’s 2010 treble winning squad and now plying his trade with Genoa. He remains Macedonia’s captain and has played a record 110 times for his country, few players have earned a trip to a major tournament more than Pandev.
Kosovo made plenty of friends in qualifying with a brand of enterprising football as they finished third in Group A. Milot Rashica, Besar Halimi and Valon Berisha provide creativity and thrust in midfield whilst Fenerbahce’s Vedat Muriqi is proving prolific in attack. However Rashica and Halimi are injured and for all the style going forward, they do leave themselves open in defence, conceding 16 in qualifying (admittedly 9 were against England).
Prediction: This should be an entertaining game with both sides able to play attacking football. Kosovo even without key players have the talent to progress, the question is have they improved their game management? North Macedonia 2-3 Kosovo
And the final…Georgia have the defence but Kosovo have the ability to create chances and should come through.