ANOTHER campaign, another gut-wrenching ending.

Scotland wrapped up their Russia 2018 qualification process with a familiar pang of pain and disappointment on Sunday, as a 2-2 draw in Slovenia saw them slip behind Slovakia on goal difference into third place.

The failure of Gordon Strachan’s side means hopes of ending a 20-year exile from a major finals have been dashed once more. 

But with changes in the pipeline, will the new UEFA Nations League improve Scotland’s chances of ending the decades of hurt by reaching Euro 2020?

What is the UEFA Nations League?

It is a new international tournament set to kick off after the 2018 World Cup, replacing friendly matches on the international calendar to ensure there are as few snooze-fests as possible and more meaningful encounters instead. 

The Nations League will involve all 55 UEFA teams, divided into four divisions, and will help the top-ranked teams get more time facing quality opposition while allowing lower-ranked teams a better crack at qualification.

Four of the 24 available European Championships slots will be claimed through the Nations League, with the remaining 20 being made up of the top two teams from 10 qualifying groups in the traditional format.

How does it work?

There are four leagues, ranked A-D, based on UEFA national team rankings. Within each league are four groups.

Leagues A and B will be made up of 12 teams, split into four groups of three.

League C – which Scotland are set to be drawn into – features 15 teams, split into three groups of four and one three-team pool.

At the bottom of the pile is League D, consisting of 16 teams and divided into four groups of four.

Teams will play one another home and away between September and November to determine the winners and losers of each mini-group.

The winners of League B-D groups will earn promotion to the league above, while the bottom teams in League A-C groups will be relegated.

The four group winners from League A will then qualify for the UEFA Nations League finals held in June 2019. A host country will be appointed from among the finalists in December 2018 and a winner will be crowned following two semi-finals and a final.

The pool stage draw is set to take place on 24 January 2018 and will be based on each team’s UEFA ranking once the Russia 2018 qualifying process is completed on Tuesday; play-off results are not included.

As it stands, this is what each league looks like:

LEAGUE A (teams to be split into four groups of three)
Germany, Portugal, Belgium, Spain, France, Switzerland, England, Italy, Poland, Iceland, Croatia, Wales

LEAGUE B (teams to be split into four groups of three)
Sweden, Netherlands, Russia, Ukraine, Austria, Northern Ireland, Slovakia, Republic of Ireland, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Denmark, Turkey, Czech Republic

LEAGUE C (teams to be split into one group of three, and three groups of four)
Romania, Scotland, Hungary, Slovenia, Albania, Montenegro, Serbia, Greece, Norway, Israel, Bulgaria, Finland, Cyprus, Estonia, Lithuania

LEAGUE D (teams to be split into four groups of four)
Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, FYR Macedonia, Faroe Islands, Armenia, Latvia, Luxembourg, Moldova, Kazakhstan, Liechtenstein, Malta, Andorra, Kosovo, San Marino, Gibraltar

How does this affect Euro 2020 qualifying?

There are still 24 finalists, but the normal qualifying process now begins in March of the year following the World Cup rather than in September of the same year.

The normal European qualifiers will be linked with the Nations League, although the majority of teams will still book their finals place the usual way.

There will be 10 qualifying groups of five or six teams, with the top two from each group qualifying to make up 20 finalists.

With no host nation getting an automatic spot – there will be 13 countries hosting games at Euro 2020 including Scotland – that leaves four places to be claimed through the Nations League.

These four spots will be decided through play-offs contested by the 16 Nations League group winners – four from each league.

The good news for Scotland here is that if they fail to qualify the traditional way, each league has a path of its own to the finals.

So if the Scots win their group, they will be two matches away from a return to the European Championships, with a single-leg semi-final and single-leg final against the other League C winners taking place. 

Therefore the remaining four spots at Euro2020 will be taken up by the four winners of each league’s separate playoff.

However, if a group winner has already qualified for the finals through the traditional qualifying process, their spot in the play-off will go to the next best ranked team in their league.

And if a league can’t find four teams to compete, the remaining slots are allocated to teams from another league based on the overall Nations League rankings.

Is it a good thing?

We’ll have to wait and see, but at the very least the Nations League could offer Scotland a safety net if they again fail to finish in the top two of their qualifying group.

The format has been met with some criticism due to the fact that teams already eliminated from World Cup qualifiers might benefit from losing games and dropping down to a lower league in order to increase their chances of reaching a play-off.

Complex and convoluted it may be, but UEFA’s latest masterplan could well offer us an extra chance of leaving behind two decades of painful memories and playing a part in a major finals once more.

HeraldScotland | Sport

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