Euro 2020 play-offs: Irish battle looms - if Bosnia and Slovakia can be overcome

By John HaugheyBBC Sport NI
Northern Ireland's George Saville battles with Bosnia's Miralem Pjanic in Belfast last year
Bosnia-Herzegovina beat Northern Ireland home and away in the inaugural Nations League last autumn

Inevitably, headline writers and fans are already getting excited about the prospect of an all-Irish showdown for a Euro 2020 spot and the Bosnia-Herzegovina and Slovakia squads will be only too happy to see football folk in the Emerald Isle getting ahead of themselves.

First things first, Michael O'Neill's Northern Ireland will have to overcome a Bosnia side that defeated them home and away in a five-week period in the inaugural Nations League last autumn.

Granted, Northern Ireland wasted a host of chances in both games with a mix-up between keeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell and Craig Cathcart gifting the Bosnians their second goal in the 2-1 victory at Windsor Park.

Those two victories and a win over Austria helped the Bosnians top the group and means they now have the back-door route to Euro 2020 despite a disappointing campaign over the last eight months which included five defeats in 10 games as they finished well adrift of Italy and first-time major tournament qualifiers Finland.

Back in September, former Croatian star Robert Prosinecki stepped down as Bosnia boss after a 4-2 qualifier defeat in Armenia but was quickly persuaded to reverse that decision and will remain in charge until the end of their Euro 2020 campaign.

The Bosnians are still able to call on the predatory former Manchester City striker Edin Dzeko, now playing with Roma, while Miralem Pjanic remains a highly effective performer for Juventus with Rade Krunic also operating in Serie A for Milan.

In addition, Arsenal left-back Sead Kolasinac remains part of the Bosnia squad while Hoffenheim centre-back Ermin Bicakcic is also a defensive option for Prosinecki with Sheffield United's on-loan Everton player Muhamed Besic also available to Robert Prosinecki.

Bosnia ended their Euro 2020 qualifying group over the past week with a 3-0 home defeat by Italy while Dzeko, Pjanic, Krunic and Kolasinac were then excused from duty for Monday's 3-0 win in Liechtenstein.

Their disappointing form over the past eight months has seen them slide from 34th to 48th in the world rankings - with Northern Ireland now occupying 34th spot.

Milan Skriniar is being linked with a move away from Inter Milan to several clubs including Real Madrid, Barcelona and Manchester United
Inter Milan defender Milan Skriniar is Slovakia's big-name player

Slovakia will be tough opponents for Republic

The Republic of Ireland's opponents Slovakia ended only one point off automatic Euro 2020 qualification as they finished just behind Group E runners-up Wales, and four adrift of Croatia.

Saturday's 3-1 defeat by the Croatians in Rijeka - their third loss in the group after an earlier home defeat by last year's World Cup finalists and further reverse in Cardiff last March - ultimately ended their chances despite home and away wins over Hungary.

Despite their failure to secure automatic qualification, Slovakia remain the highest ranked of the four play-off hopefuls in Path B with their 31st position five ahead of their semi-final opponents.

Indiscipline has been a problem for the Slovakians with Pavel Hapal's side finishing both their recent home draw with Wales and defeat in Croatia with 10 men.

Inter Milan centre-back Milan Skriniar is the hot property in the Slovakia squad with him being linked at Real Madrid and Barcelona at the moment and Manchester United also reportedly among his admirers.

Slovakia boss Hapal is still able to call on former Napoli star Marek Hamsik despite the midfielder's move to Chinese Super League Club Dalian Yifang last February.

Hamsik, 32, helped Napoli earn two Coppa Italia triumphs during his 12 years at the club and also surpassed Diego Maradona as the club's all-time record goalscorer in 2017.

Slovakia's goalkeeper Martin Dubravka is a regular Premier League starter with Newcastle while midfielders Juraj Kucka and Stanislav Lobotka play for Serie A outfit Parma and La Liga club Celta Vigo respectively.

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