Northern Ireland were today drawn in League C’s Group 2 and will face Greece, Kosovo and Cyprus or Estonia in the 2022/23 UEFA Nations League.
With four of the games taking place in June and the concluding pair of fixtures in September, June would appear to have been best timing for an away day double-header at Greece and Cyprus, however it won’t be known until the Cypriots and Estonia play-off in March which of the pair will remain in League C and which will be relegated to League D.
That clearly comes under consideration when the administrators thrash out the dates for each of the games.
The condensed calendar is to accommodate winter scheduling of the Qatar World Cup which begins in November. Northern Ireland will play 4 times between the 2nd and 14th of June.
Of the three opponents, the only one Northern Ireland has never faced before is Kosovo, who play home games at the 13,500 in Prishtina. It’s a venue where the Kosovans have beaten only Gambia, Lithuania and San Marino over the past 2 years although they did manage a World Cup qualifying draw (1-1) against Greece.
Also, England won 4-0 in a European Championship qualifier there in November 2019.
Northern Ireland’s brightest highlight against Cyprus was a 1971 George Best hat-trick in 12 minutes (44, 47, 56) in a 5-0 Windsor Park European Championship win in front of 20,000.
We’ve conceded only once to Cyprus in six meetings, a late goal (88th min) which was enough to give the island country its first-ever World Cup qualifying win, in Nicosia in 1973. At the time not surprisingly, it was seen as a dreadful result for the Irish, who included 8 English First Division players in their starting line-up. The Cypriots went almost 20 years before they won a WC qualifier again, against the Faroes in Torshavn in 1992.
Estonia has met Northern Ireland three times within the last 20 months, losing on each occasion. Before that however the sides shared two wins apiece in four previous clashes.
Which leaves Greece, who you expect to be Northern Ireland’s greatest threat for Group supremacy.
It takes a lengthy rewind back to 1961 for the first meeting with the Greeks in Athens, a 1-2 WC qualifying defeat, the late Jimmy McIlroy’s 85th minute consolation goal proving insufficient to save the day.
The home game was won through two Jimmy McLaughlin goals to nil and competitive honours have been shared since between the countries, with two wins apiece. Only one other meeting took place, a 1988 friendly in Athens in which Colin Clarke’s brace established a 2-1 lead for the visitors by minute 76, only for Greece to rebound and win the game 3-2.
The winners of group B will be promoted to League C for the next edition of the UEFA Nations League in 2024/25.