Michael O’Neill has agreed to return for a second spell as Northern Ireland manager and his appointment is due to be announced this week.
The 53-year-old was in charge from December 2011 to April 2020, during which he led his country to Euro 2016, Northern Ireland’s first major tournament in 30 years. The team reached the last 16 before losing to Wales.
For the final months of that stint O’Neill combined his duties with managing Stoke but he left the Northern Ireland job to concentrate on the Championship club after the Euro 2020 playoffs were postponed by the pandemic.
O’Neill was sacked by Stoke in August and is taking over from Ian Baraclough. Baraclough was sacked in October after avoiding back-to-back Nations League relegations on goal difference.
Northern Ireland are in a Euro 2024 qualifying group with Denmark, Finland, Slovenia, Kazakhstan and San Marino. That campaign opens in March for O’Neill with games away to San Marino and at home to Finland.
The draw for the Euro 2024 qualifiers has thrown up a repeat of the 2020 final, with Italy facing England in Group C. There were gasps at the Festhalle in Frankfurt as the former Germany striker Karl-Heinz Riedle pulled England’s name out of the second pot of seeds. On paper, it is England’s toughest qualifying group in more than two decades, with Ukraine and North Macedonia also contesting the two available places at the finals in Germany. Malta complete the five-team group.
In part England have been penalised for their shocking performances in the most recent Nations League, which saw them relegated to League B and meant they were absent from the top pot of seeds for the first time since the 2010 World Cup. The double-header against the defending champions represents their first time they have been drawn against one of the giants of European football in qualifying since facing Germany ahead of the 2002 World Cup.
Ukraine and North Macedonia are not to be underestimated, either. The fallout from the Russian invasion has forced Ukraine to play their home fixtures in Poland for the time being but they came within touching distance of qualifying for the 2022 World Cup and were quarter-finalists at Euro 2020 before being knocked out by England. North Macedonia also qualified for Euro 2020 and eliminated Italy from World Cup qualifying earlier this year. However, their veteran talisman Goran Pandev will announced his retirement from the game last month.
Scotland and Ireland have also been handed daunting assignments. Steve Clarke’s team have been drawn against Spain and Norway, while Ireland will face three former champions in the Netherlands, France and Greece. Wales will fancy their chances of qualifying from Group D, with Croatia, Armenia and Turkey their strongest competitors. Northern Ireland are in Group H with Denmark and Finland.
The top two teams from each of the 10 groups will qualify for Euro 2024 along with the hosts, Germany. The remaining three places will be determined by a play-off process based on performances in the recent Nations League.
Scotland, as winners of their League B group, are guaranteed a play-off place if they fail to qualify automatically.
The draw in full
Group A: Spain, Scotland, Norway, Georgia, Cyprus Group B: Netherlands, France, Ireland, Greece, Gibraltar Group C: Italy, England, Ukraine, North Macedonia, Malta Group D: Croatia, Wales, Armenia, Turkey, Latvia Group E: Poland, Czechia, Albania, Faroe Islands, Moldova Group F: Belgium, Austria, Sweden, Azerbaijan, Estonia Group G: Hungary, Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria, Lithuania Group H: Denmark, Finland, Slovenia, Kazakhstan, Northern Ireland, San Marino Group I: Switzerland, Israel, Romania, Kosovo, Belarus, Andorra Group J: Portugal, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iceland, Luxembourg, Slovakia, Liechtenstein