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Who Will Qualify From the Euro 2020 Playoffs?

| October 6, 2020 3:55 am PDT
Euro 2020 Playoffs

All the major European soccer leagues have now belatedly kicked off their new seasons, but for some players, there are some very important international fixtures coming up in the next month. As part of the revamp of the European Championship qualification process – and to allow smaller nations a chance to play on the big stage – the last four berths at Euro 2020 (now being played next summer) are to be decided with playoffs.

There are sixteen countries in with a chance of taking one of the last remaining spots. It was a fairly confusing process, but the chosen few were all teams that failed to qualify through the usual European Championship qualification groups – but had performed well in the 2018-19 Nations League tournament. 

As with that competition, there are four separate groups at four distinct levels of ability. Group A is made up of countries that have previously qualified for major tournaments, such as Iceland, Romania, and Bulgaria. But the innovative format ensures that one of Georgia, Belarus, North Macedonia or Kosovo will be part of next summer’s festivities.

A lot has happened since the European Championship qualifiers and the Nations League, but the semi-finals will be played this Thursday – with the four finals scheduled for Thursday, November 12. All ties are single-game affairs, and each of the 16 teams is now just 180 minutes from qualifying for Euro 2020.

Group A

  • Bulgaria
  • Hungary
  • Iceland
  • Romania

Most of the more successful nations have already qualified for the tournament, so even Group A is made up of four countries that have had relatively little to celebrate in recent years. Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary have all been regular competitors at major international tournaments in the past, but have failed to qualify for many of the most recent events. After a lot of investment in the country’s soccer infrastructure, Iceland made it to Euro 2016 and World Cup 2018 and now makes up the elite quartet in these playoffs.

The worry for Iceland is that for such a tiny nation, it has relied on a golden generation that has now either retired from the global stage or is seeing Euro 2020 as a possible grand finale. There is no doubt that Iceland has overachieved over the last five or six years and the team that will face Romania in Reykjavik on Thursday is one of the oldest remaining in the competition. But that experience could end up being a huge advantage against what is a young Romanian squad.

There will be no fans at any of the playoff semi-finals, but home advantage should still play a part for Iceland. The Romanian team will be more used to playing in bigger, luxurious stadiums than the Laugardalsvollur, and – although the weather is not supposed to be too bad – it will favor the home side. 

The other semi-final seems better matched. Hungary qualified for its first major tournament in 30 years when it made it to France for Euro 2016 – and even managed to win a group that included Portugal before crashing out to Belgium in the round of 16. Results have not been that spectacular since, although manager Marco Rossi has been attempting to stamp his own style of attractive soccer on his squad in the two years he has been in the job. There was a good win in Turkey at the beginning of September, and the Magyars are favorite to overcome Bulgaria in Sofia.

The home side looked very limited against Wales in a recent Nations League tie and has not made it to a major final since Euro 2004. Bulgaria’s last win came in November 2019, and it would seem as though the most pressure will be on the defense to keep Hungary out. Newly naturalized Brazilian Cincinho will be the main hope in the middle of the pitch, but it would be a surprise if Bulgaria were to get through the semi-final, let alone qualify for the finals.

With an Iceland vs. Hungary final, the most likely outcome, it really depends on whether the Nordic players can raise their game one last time. Hungary is full of exciting young players, but they can sometimes find their manager’s quick-moving tactics too much for them. If Iceland can constrict Hungary’s movements in a final between those two, then it should be the one joining the Euro 2020 party next summer.

Group B

  • Bosnia and Herzegovinia
  • Northern Ireland
  • Slovakia
  • Republic of Ireland

This is another intriguing foursome, with Bosnia and Herzegovina playing Northern Ireland in one semi-final and Slovakia hosting the Republic of Ireland in the other. Bosnia only played its first-ever FIFA international in 1995 but has already qualified for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. The Balkan nation has never made it to a European Championship before, however. 

Bosnia’s main threats will be Roma’s Edin Dzeko, Sead Kolasinac of Arsenal, and Miralem Pjanic, who has just joined Barcelona. Those three make up a fearsome spine of a team that also includes some very good youngsters from the Bosnian diaspora. Bosnia missed out on automatic qualification after Finland excelled in its group – and recent results have been a bit patchy. But it should still be too strong for Northern Ireland in the semi-final.

New Northern Ireland manager Ian Barraclough will be hoping that his experience and knowledge gained during his time as the national U21s coach will help with the new generation of players that are coming through to the senior set up. But his regime has been slow to get off the ground, with a draw against Romania followed by a 5-1 thrashing at the hands of Norway in Belfast a month ago.

The Republic of Ireland is also under new management, with Stephen Kelly promising a more attractive style of soccer than the direct and robust approach favored over the past few years. But his two games in charge have brought a 1-1 draw with Bulgaria – in which the Irish goal was scored by a defender in stoppage time – and a home defeat to Finland. The Republic has qualified for the last two European Championships, but a third successive finals should be too much of an ask.

This will probably be the final chance to watch Slovakian talisman Marek Hamsik on the international stage, and the talented midfielder will be doing everything he can to ensure that his country qualifies for a second consecutive finals. There are a number of injuries in the Slovakian squad, though and – combined with some recent retirements of the older guard – the semi-final against the Republic of Ireland will be a tight game. Whoever gets through will probably face Bosnia in Sarajevo in the final – and I can’t see that going any other way than a victory for the home side.

Group C

  • Norway
  • Serbia
  • Scotland
  • Israel

This is the first level of the groups where there is likely to be a big mismatch. Norway plays Serbia in one semi-final, while Scotland hosts Israel in the other. It will be a surprise if the winner of the first game doesn’t easily win the final.

Norway versus Serbia promises to be one of the games of the playoffs as it pits an exciting, young Norwegian squad playing a direct style of soccer that benefits from the inclusion of wonder kid Erling Braut Haaland and Alexander Solorth, against a Serbia team full of stylish players – as well as its own goal machine in the form of striker Aleksandr Mitrovic.

There are some exceptional players in the Serbia side, but the sheer power of Haaland could sway the game. He has been prolific since moving to Borussia Dortmund in January and is desperate to fire his country to its first major finals since Euro 2000. He won’t be able to do it all on his own, but he should be the deciding factor.

The other semi-final should only prolong the qualification process for one more game for the victor, as neither Scotland nor Israel really stands a chance against whoever wins in Oslo. These two are very familiar with each other, having played three fixtures in the last two years. The most recent meeting ended in a 1-1 draw at Hampden Park in September, and another close game can probably be expected.

There are not many big stars on either team, but Liverpool’s Andrew Robertson will be the main provider of attacking chances for his side’s strikers, while Munes Dabbur will be looking to find the net for Israel. For the record, I think Scotland will just about edge the semi-final before being blown away by Norway in the final in November.

Group D

  • Georgia
  • Belarus
  • North Macedonia
  • Kosovo

This is where the real minnows of European soccer have the best ever chance of qualifying for a major international tournament. The Nations League has been an excellent source of pride and a basis for vast improvement for a number of the smaller countries – and the four remaining in Group D will be looking forward to the chance of appearing on the big stage next summer.

The two semi-finals pit countries from the former Soviet Union together in one game and two from the former Yugoslavia in the other. A lot of regional pride will be at stake, and both games should be high on drama. Georgia must be fancied against a Belarus side that scored just four goals in the entire qualification campaign – and the country has been dealing with political turmoil as well as everything else over the past few months. Results have been better recently, but Georgia should win this semi-final convincingly in Tbilisi.

The newly renamed North Macedonia will entertain Kosovo in the second semi-final tie, and it could see a country that was only accepted into UEFA four years ago qualify for the European Championship at its very first attempt. Kosovo finished third in its group – an achievement in itself – and looked dangerous against England at Wembley before going down 5-3. That’s actually a very good result when you consider that Gareth Southgate’s team only conceded six goals during the entire campaign.

North Macedonia has also performed well against England in recent years and has recorded some positive results against some of the other big hitters in Europe. Where Kosovo looks to the goals of Milot Rashica and new Lazio signing Vedat Muriqi, the Macedonian leader is undoubtedly Goran Pandev. He may not score as many goals these days, but, at the age of 37, the former Lazio, Napoli, and Genoa star will be determined to delay his retirement a little longer and help his country qualify for its first-ever finals.

But the way Kosovo is able to call up more and more young and exciting players – especially those born in Switzerland, but qualifying through family ties – it would seem as though Europe’s newest nation will be represented at the European Championship next summer. Kosovo should just about get past North Macedonia and must be fancied against either of Georgia or Belarus in the final.

Final Words and Betting Pick

The odds for qualifying for Euro 2020 via these playoffs have not been released yet, but there should be some markets available by the time the four group finals are played at the beginning of November. So look out for my betting picks nearer the time.

But there are individual semi-final tie match result markets at a number of bookmakers at the moment. The pick of the bunch is probably Kosovo to beat North Macedonia at 3.00 at Betway, with a price of 2.40 for Norway to overcome Serbia a close second in what will be a well-fought game.

  • Kosovo to beat North Macedonia

After these semi-finals, there will be just four more games in what has been the longest qualifying campaign in recent history. We should already know all the nations competing at Euro 2020, but for reasons out of UEFA’s control, we still have some fascinating ties to watch. Eight of the countries will finish their campaigns on Thursday – but for the remaining nations, there will be just 90 more minutes to play before they can book their hotels for next year’s tournament.

Dan Roberts
Dan Roberts

Dan Roberts is an experienced freelance writer specialising in sports and sports betting. He is particularly knowledgeable about world soccer, but also writes about football, basketball and cricket.

As a fan of Nottingham Forest, New York Knicks, Minnesota Vikings and New York Mets, Dan has not had much to celebrate recently.

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