Your guide to this weekend's UEFA Nations League fixtures
- All the Home Nations in action over the weekend
- Scotland and Northern Ireland in strong positions
- England and Republic of Ireland have must win games to avoid relegation
It's time again for the international competition that few people understand and fewer care about.
The UEFA Nations League is a league format international tournament held between football teams in Europe that operates similarly to the Davis Cup in tennis.
The 55 teams have been seeded based on their overall international ranking and split into four leagues (A-D) each of which has four groups (1-4). The winner of each group is promoted to the league above and the loser relegated to the league below. The winners of each group in League A go on to compete in a knockout finals tournament to decide the winner of the Nations League.
Got all that? Good, because that is the simplest part. The Nations League also acts as a qualifying tournament for the 2020 European Championships. Based on their performance in the Nations League, the 55 teams will be drawn into one of ten groups, with the first and second placed team in each group directly qualifying for the Euros. 24 teams compete in the Euros, so the other nations to qualify will come from the Nations League in one of the most convoluted routes in football.
The winner of each group, as well as getting promoted, automatically gains a place in a playoff competition to decide the remaining four teams to compete at the Euros. This is split by league, so the four group winners of League D will play each other in a knockout tournament, and the winner will gain a place at the finals tournament.
But, if a team qualifies through the qualifying round, they give up their playoff place to the next best team. Take League A, where most of the teams are among the best in the world (France, Spain, Germany etc). It would be expected for most of these teams to qualify, especially the group winners, so if any team placed second or third in their group did not qualify in the qualifying tournament, they would get that playoff place instead.
However, as it's likely that most teams in League A will qualify directly, the playoff berths will then become open to teams in the league below. But, each group winner can only play teams in their League or a lower league, so if there were three teams in League A who entered the playoffs, the remaining team in that playoff would be placed second or lower in a group in League B.
With all that in mind, performing well in the Nations League is quite important, as it can potentially give a team several bites at qualifying for Euro 2020.
So, when are the Home Nations in action this weekend, and against whom?
England travel to Rijeka to play Croatia on Friday and to Seville on Monday for a match against Spain. England are currently second out of three in their group, having lost 2-1 at home to Spain last month. Croatia also lost to Spain, but were on the end of a 6-0 flogging, so the Three Lions will fancy their chances to pick up some points against a reeling Croatia side. It's also a chance to get some revenge for being knocked out of the World Cup.
Northern Ireland, who are in League B, also have two away matches on Friday and Monday, travelling first to Vienna to play Austria and then to Sarajevo to play Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Green and White Army also lost their opening game 2-1, at home to Bosnia and Herzegovina, who went on to beat Austria 1-0 a few days later, leaving them almost uncatchable at the top. If Northern Ireland can beat Austria into second place, however, they could still be in the hunt for a playoff place.
Republic of Ireland host Denmark on Saturday and Wales on Tuesday in Dublin. Ireland were soundly beaten by Wales in Cardiff in September and are staring relegation in the face. Wales were subsequently disappointing against Denmark in Copenhagen, so the match between the Dragons and the Boys In Green could be a fiery encounter.
Scotland are one of the higher-ranked teams in League C and so probably have the easiest run of fixtures of any of the home nations. They play just once this month, travelling to Haifa to play Israel. Three points here will leave them almost unassailable at the top with more games to play than their competition, having beaten Albania 2-0 in their opening match.
Gibraltar (yes, they're in this too!) have a tricky away trip to Yerevan to play Armenia, followed by a home game against Liechtenstein in the lowest League D. Gibraltar have not done well so far, losing their first two games at home to Macedonia and away to Liechtenstein, both without scoring a goal. Even with the qualification giving a chance to some smaller teams, Gibraltar don't really have a prayer.
Other interesting fixtures include the Netherlands at home to Germany on Saturday followed by the 2014 world champions travelling to 2018 world champions France on Tuesday. Israel play host to Albania, the other match in Scotland's group on Sunday.