Euro 2020: Northern Ireland are down, but not out thanks to play-off system

Josh Magennis scored the opening goal in Northern Ireland's 3-1 defeat by the Netherlands
Josh Magennis scored the opening goal in Northern Ireland's 3-1 defeat by the Netherlands

Northern Ireland's defeat by the Netherlands in Rotterdam was heartbreaking, but it does not end their hopes of Euro 2020 qualification.

Michael O'Neill's side dropped into third place in qualifying Group C, behind both the Dutch and Germany on goal difference, after losing 3-1 to Ronald Koeman's men.

With a home game against the Netherlands and a trip to Germany remaining, securing an automatic spot at next summer's tournament seems like a big ask.

However, should Northern Ireland finish third, they may have the opportunity to qualify for the finals via the play-offs.

With two automatic berths in each of the 10 qualifying groups, there are four places available via the play-offs for the 24-team tournament, which is due to be held in 12 cities across the continent between 12 June and 12 July.

Belgium are the only country to have secured automatic qualification, courtesy of their 9-0 demolition of minnows San Marino on Thursday night.

Scotland and Belarus are the only two teams guaranteed a play-off spot.

As it currently stands, the Green and White Army are situated in Path B of the play-offs, alongside Bosnia and Herzegovina, Wales and one of Bulgaria, Israel, Hungary or Romania.

Northern Ireland are ranked 24th in Nations League standings, bottom of League B following their poor performance in the Nations League in which they lost all four games against Bosnia and Austria.

Thursday's defeat in Rotterdam dealt a major blow to NI's hopes of automatic qualification
Thursday's defeat in Rotterdam dealt a major blow to NI's hopes of automatic qualification

However, given the number of teams above them who are likely to qualify automatically (England, for example, can seal their automatic spot with victory over the Czech Republic on Friday), Northern Ireland should secure one of the maximum 16 play-off places.

As per the Uefa website, "if a League does not have four teams to compete (say, for example, if ten of the 12 League A teams qualify automatically), the remaining slots are allocated to sides from another League in accordance with the overall UEFA Nations League rankings."

"However, group winners cannot be placed in a play-off group with teams from a higher League. Therefore, should a play-off group including at least one group winner not have enough teams from the same League, the remaining spot(s) will have to be filled by teams from a lower League."

The single-legged play-offs will take place in March 2020, with the draw to decide home advantage taking place on 22 November.

The highest-ranked team in each path will play the lowest-ranked nation, with second taking on third.

At the moment, Northern Ireland have a strong chance of making the play-offs. While the defeat in Rotterdam was difficult to take, there could still be a light at the end of the qualifying tunnel.