On Wednesday, 24 January, Scotland were drawn in group C1 against Albania and Israel in the inaugural edition of the UEFA Nations League.
This brand new international competition for all 55 UEFA members is designed primarily to replace international friendlies with more competitive matches. Perhaps most importantly from Scotland’s point of view, it will also provide a second route to qualification for the UEFA European Championship. Here, we take a look at the format of the new competition, with a particular focus on how it will affect Scotland.
Nations League Group Stage
As the name suggests, the UEFA Nations League will have a league format, involving promotion and relegation between divisions. For this inaugural Nations League campaign, the 55 UEFA member countries are allocated to four leagues based on their UEFA national team coefficient. The top 12 teams are placed into League A, the next 12 into League B, the next 15 form League C and the remaining 16 make up League D. Scotland are currently 27th in the UEFA national coefficient rankings and will therefore be placed into League C.
The full make-up of the leagues is as follows:
League A (12 teams): Germany, Portugal, Belgium, Spain, France, England, Switzerland, Italy, Poland, Iceland, Croatia, Netherlands.
League B (12 teams): Austria, Wales, Russia, Slovakia, Sweden, Ukraine, Republic of Ireland, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Northern Ireland, Denmark, Czech Republic, Turkey.
League C (15 teams): Hungary, Romania, SCOTLAND, Slovenia, Greece, Serbia, Albania, Norway, Montenegro, Israel, Bulgaria, Finland, Cyprus, Estonia, Lithuania.
League D (16 teams): Azerbaijan, FYR Macedonia, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia, Latvia, Faroe Islands, Luxembourg, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Liechtenstein, Malta, Andorra, Kosovo, San Marino, Gibraltar.
Within each league, the nations are split into four small groups containing either three or four teams. In Leagues A and B, each group will contain three teams, League C has three groups of four and one group of three, and League D has four groups of four. Teams will face each other team in their group home and away, giving a total of four or six matches. These matches will be played across three double-headers in September, October and November 2018.
Within each group, teams are ranked in the usual way; if two or more teams are level on points then the head-to-head record is used to separate them. If they are still tied, then the following criteria are used; goal difference, goals scored, away goals, wins, away wins, disciplinary points, UEFA national team coefficient.
The winners of each group within League A will qualify for the Nations League Finals in June 2019, called the Final Four. There they will play a mini knock-out tournament (semi-finals and final) to decide the Nations League winners.
The winners of each other group will gain promotion into the league above. The bottom team in each group will be relegated into the league below, with one exception. That exception occurs in League C, where the three sides finishing bottom of the groups of four will be relegated, along with the worst 3rd placed side. That means that the side finishing bottom of group C4 (the group with three teams) would escape relegation if their record was better than one of the other 3rd placed sides. The results against the 4th placed sides are excluded when deciding these rankings.
The figure below offers a visual representation of this format.
Again, the UEFA national team coefficients are used to divide teams into seeding pots within each league. Scotland were ranked 3rd of the 15 teams within League C, and therefore werein Pot 1 for the League C draw. The pots for the League C draw were as follows:
Pot 1: Hungary, Romania, SCOTLAND, Slovenia.
Pot 2: Greece, Serbia, Albania, Norway.
Pot 3: Montenegro, Israel, Bulgaria, Finland.
Pot 4: Cyprus, Estonia, Lithuania.
There is one small restriction applied to the League C draw – no group can contain more than two of Norway, Finland, Estonia and Lithuania. This is to ensure that these nations can play away matches in November, due to the winter weather conditions in those countries.
Euro 2020 Qualification
Importantly, in addition to the promotion and relegation aspect, nations are also playing for a potential place at Euro 2020. In addition to the traditional qualification campaign for the European Championships, there will also be four places available via the Nations League, with one spot available for each league. These spots will be allocated via a set of four-team knock-out play-offs (semi-final and final) that will take place in 2020 after the traditional qualifiers are completed.
The Euro 2020 qualification process will therefore take place in two stages. First, the traditional qualification campaign will take place, with countries divided into 10 groups (five groups of five and five groups of six). These matches will take place across five double-headers in 2019 (March, June, September, October and November). The top two finishers in each group will qualify for Euro 2020.
That means that a total of 20 nations will qualify automatically for Euro 2020. The remaining four places in the finals will be decided via the Nations League play-offs. Within each league (A-D), the four highest ranked finishers who did not qualify via the traditional qualifiers will have the opportunity to play off for a spot at the Euros.
It is easiest to explain these play-offs via a hypothetical scenario, as demonstrated in the figure below. The left panel shows all of the countries who qualified automatically for Euro 2020 via the traditional qualification campaign. The Nations League play-off spots will be allocated to the highest placed non-qualifiers within each league. The right panel is colour coded to indicate the sides which would qualify for the Nations League play-offs (purple for the League A play-offs, red for League B, blue for League C and green for League D). An explanation of these selections is provided below.
In League A, only three nations failed to qualify via the traditional method. All three of these nations will therefore take part in the League A play-off. In order to make up the numbers, a team from a lower division will be given the final slot in the League A play-offs.
In League B, five nations failed to qualify via the traditional method. The top four finishers are therefore selected to take part in the League B play-off. In this example, the winners of Group B1 and the runners-up of Groups B2 and B4 would be joined by whichever of the two fourth-placed sides (B1 or B4) had a better record in their group. The fourth-placed side with the poorer record would then be moved up to fill the final place in the League A play-offs. The League A play-offs are likely to be tougher than the League B play-offs, so being moved up in this way is likely to be a disadvantage.
In League C, the winners of Group C1 would join the runners up of Groups C1, C2 and C4. Since none of the League D sides qualified via the traditional qualifiers, the four group winners would qualify for the play-offs.
All of these play-offs will take place during March 2020 and will consist of a single-leg semi-final and single-leg final. The highest placed Nations League finishers will have home advantage in the semi-final, while a draw will be held for the final venue prior to the semi-finals taking place.
For Scotland, the UEFA Nations League therefore provides us with two separate chances of qualification for Euro 2020. If we win our Nations League group we will be guaranteed at least a play-off place, while a second-placed finish may also prove to be enough. However, regardless of our Nations League showing, we will also have an opportunity to automatically qualify by finishing in the top two of our qualifying group.
With Hampden a host venue for Euro 2020 – and the carrot of playing at least two matches at Hampden tantalisingly dangled in front of us – the Nations League presents a welcome variant on the traditional qualification route.