UEFA Nations League Preview

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This week sees the start of a new international competition: The UEFA Nations League. The Nations League will see Europe’s fifty-five footballing nations competing in a third major tournament, taking place across this season. The aim is to replace meaningless midseason friendlies with competitive fixtures and increase interest in international matches in the period between the World Cup and European Championships.

How does it work?

European nations have been divided into four divisions with the twelve top ranked nations playing in Division A, the next twelve in Division B, down to Division D.

Division A has been divided into four groups of three teams who will play each other home and away in the September – November international fixtures. The four Group winners will advance to the Nations League finals mini tournament next June. Meanwhile the four bottom placed teams will be relegated to Division B and replaced by the four winners of the Division B groups, promotion and relegation will run through the four divisions. A strong showing could also lead to a backdoor qualification to Euro 2020.

Why add a third competition?

The Nations League is replacing friendlies which have had the effect of eroding the value of some of international footballs great fixtures. The other problem is the expanding formats of both the European Championships and the World Cup is making qualifying too easy for the majority of Europe’s big names. The Nations League also gives the lesser teams a competitive goal to aim for i.e. winning promotion up to the next division and play competitively against teams of a similar standing rather than merely trying to avoid a thrashing every game.

Division A

Group 1

The inaugural fixture of the Nations League couldn’t be bigger: a clash between the new and deposed World Champions in Munich. Germany are still smarting from their World Cup humiliation and things got even worse when Mesut Ozil controversially called time on his Germany career. Joachim Low remains in charge and will look to build around the creative talents of Julian Draxler & Toni Kroos. As expected, Low has recalled Leroy Sane after his surprise exclusion from the World Cup squad. Germany may be down but they won’t stay there for long.

France have few problems as Didier Deschamps’ World Champions and start the tournament as favourites. Kylian Mbappe now finds himself centre stage and must learn to live under the intense spotlight of success. Deschamps may also take this opportunity to look at a younger forward to replace Olivier Giroud in the number nine role. His squad suffered an injury blow on Sunday though, with goalkeeper Hugo Lloris a doubtful inclusion for the trip to Munich.

Holland couldn’t be facing a tougher group and start as relegation favourites. After the embarrasing failure to qualify for either Euro 2016 or this summers World Cup, Holland are trying to move on from their legendary Arjen Robben and Robin Van Persie. Ronald Koeman is building around the defensive colossus of Virgil Van Dijk and the enigmatic talents of Memphis Depay. Realistically, recording home wins over Germany and France would be a major achievement.

Prediction: 1. Germany, 2. France, 3. Holland

Group 2

It will be a major shock if Belgium don’t win Group 2. The Red Devils have the best first XI in the world, if not the greatest squad depth. However, they will have to do without the creative talents of the injured Kevin De Bruyne. With Eden Hazard starting the season with a bang at Chelsea, they will still be tough to stop and their defence is boosted by the excellent form of Tottenham duo Toby Alderweireld & Jan Vertonghen.

This summer seemed to be the point reality crashed down on Iceland after their Euro 2016 heroics. Star man Gylfi Sigurdsson has made a good start to the season and their renowned defensive strength makes them a tough proposition, particularly at home and tantalizingly Belgium’s first game is away in Reykjavik.

Finally there’s perennial last sixteen team Switzerland: good in qualifying but lacking the prolific number nine to beat the big boys. Auditions for that role will continue through the tournament with Basel youngster Albian Ajetii looking to grab his chance. As ever, they are tough at the back and in Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri, they have a pair of mercurial talents who can unlock defences.

Prediction: 1. Belgium, 2. Switzerland, 3.Iceland

Group 3

Missing out on the World Cup for the first time in 60 years was an abject humiliation for Italy. Former Inter Milan & Manchester City boss Roberto Mancini is looking to rebuild and will have to do so without the legendary Gigi Buffon. Longstanding defensive duo Georgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci remain, whilst Jorginho could be the midfield general Italy have lacked since Andrea Pirlo retired. Upfront, Mancini is reunited with Mario Balotelli, back in favour after a good spell with Nice. Mancini may just make an instant impact and win Italy the group.

There’s always one team who reach the end of their life-cycle at the World Cup and flop, this time it was Poland. Their ageing side suffered a dismal elimination, but the core of the team remains the same. As ever, much will depend on star striker Robert Lewandowski. In a tough group Poland start as relegation favourites.

Lastly, we move to Portugal and him… or perhaps not! Cristiano Ronaldo is not in Portugal’s squad for their opening fixtures, although he hasn’t retired from international duty. It could be he wants to play fewer games for Portugal and save his aging limbs for Euro 2020. In saying that, without him Portugal don’t have a cutting edge and will again be reliant on their strong backline. Ultimately, no Ronaldo means the European Champions won’t win the Nations League.

Prediction: 1. Italy, 2. Portugal, 3. Poland

Group 4

Spain are rebuilding after a third successive early tournament exit. They’ve smartly appointed former Barcelona chief Luis Enrique, but he will have to move on without two of Barca’s favourite sons, following the retirements of Gerard Pique and Andres Iniesta. Sergio Ramos remains as does the metronomic Sergio Busquets, but Enrique will likely looks to build around Real Madrid playmakers Marco Asensio and Isco. There’s still talent in abundance and if Enrique can make a fast start Spain will be contenders.

For the first time in a long time, England begin a tournament in a buoyant mood, after Gareth Southgate steered his likable young side to a semi-final in Russia. Southgate has retained most of his World Cup squad but as expected, recalled Liverpool duo Joe Gomez and Adam Lallana after injury ruled both out of the World Cup. Southgate’s aim is to keep up his side’s momentum and find a midfield playmaker who can provide the creative spark they lacked in the semi-finals. Lallana is a quick fix but expect Southgate to start promoting England’s Junior level World Cup winners to the senior squad with Jason Sancho and James Maddison likely to get their debuts in October. If they can win their opener against Spain, England will be tough to stop.

Finally, we come to World Cup finalists Croatia. Their ageing side still features majestic playmakers Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic and the in form Ivan Perisic, but star striker Mario Mandzukic has retired. Croatia’s biggest problem is their small player pool, meaning they can be left short of top class players for midseason games. That is highlighted by the absence of  first XI players Ante Rebic and Dejan Lovren. They have a tough opener away to Spain, before twice facing again World Cup semi-final opponents England.

Prediction: 1. England, 2. Spain, 3.Croatia

And here in summary are Divisions B, C, D in the order in which I predict them to finish.

Division B

Group 1 Group 2 Group 3 Group 4
Czech Republic Sweden Austria Wales
Slovakia Russia Bosnia  Denmark
Ukraine Turkey Northern Ireland Republic of Ireland

Division C

Group 1 Group 2 Group 3 Group 4
Scotland Greece Norway Serbia
Albania Hungary Slovenia Montenegro
Israel Finland Bulgaria Romania
Estonia Cyprus Lithuania

Division D

Group 1 Group 2 Group 3 Group 4
Latvia Belarus Faroe Islands Armenia
Kazakhstan Moldova Azerbaijan Macedonia
Georgia Luxembourg Kosovo Liechtenstein
Andorra San Marino Malta Gibraltar

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