UEFA U21 Euro Qualifying: New Changes Explained

Portugal continued their fine form in their UEFA European Championship qualifying tonight with an emphatic 4-0 win over Cyprus. Diogo Leite scored twice and goals from both Jota and João Mário meant Portugal stay second in their qualifying group with four wins and one defeat from five matches.

It was the Esperanças’ first game since the 19th of November 2019 due to the enforced break caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. It is this pandemic which has changed the face of qualification as we usually know it, here is the lowdown on Portugal and the changes to tournament qualification.

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The Pre-COVID qualification process 

The European Championship qualifying stages are divided into nine groups, each group has six teams bar one, with Group 9 having five teams. The winner of each group automatically qualifies, they are then joined in qualification by the best runner-up (the side with the best record to finish second). The second-placed team in each group would then go into a play-off round to decide who joins the tournament. However, due to COVID-19, this has all changed.

The New Changes

In order to minimize the already hectic footballing schedule, the play-off round for the Euros has been cancelled and replaced entirely. For this year’s qualifying, the nine group winners will qualify for the tournament (as usual) but the five best runners-up will also automatically qualify, without the need for a play-off.

That means there will be nine group winners, plus five best runners-up, as well as Hungary and Slovenia (who qualify automatically due to being the host nations) which makes 16 teams.

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What Does This Mean for Portugal?

Well, in short, this is a good thing for Portugal. Rather than have to go through a potential play-off round, Portugal now needs to just be one of the best five group-runners up, at the moment they are doing just that. As things stand, Portugal sit second in their group, with four wins and one defeat (at the hands of Holland) and in the separate runners-up table Portugal are currently fifth, which would see them automatically qualify.

Portugal’s task is simple, if they want to top the group and qualify automatically they need to keep winning matches and hope that Holland drop points, the reverse fixture with the Dutch is crucial. Last time out Oranje put four past Portugal and looked a cut above if truth be told, what we do know however is this crop of players is ultra-talented and will be hoping to prove that that game was just an off-day. If Portugal is to qualify as one of the best runners-up, the plan remains the same, keep beating those teams around them as they have done so far.

Five games remain in the qualifying process and if this crop of players, with this amount of talent, do not make it to the finals, serious questions will need to be asked. Next up for Portugal is Belarus and for Rui Jorge’s men, it will be a chance to put on a real show, a statement of intent to the rest of the group and indeed to the rest of Europe.

Tournament dates: 24–31 March 2021 (group stage)
31 May – 6 June 2021 (knockout stage)

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