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The season is over and Europe’s national teams won’t be in action again until September. The inaugural Nations League season is over with a first champion crowned after the finals in Portugal. Meanwhile, the rest of the continent has been engaged in trying to qualify for next summer’s European Championships, preferably by finishing in the top two of their qualifying groups. Some have playoff berths to fall back on, but for the rest, it’s win or bust.
24. Hungary (NE)
Hungary’s class of 2019 are nowhere close to the level of Ferenc Puskas’ Mighty Magyars, but after a 30-year absence from major tournaments, Hungary are on track to qualify for a second successive European Championship. Following their surprise win over Croatia in March, a header and a tap-in from Willi Orban set the Hungarians on their way to a 3-1 win over Azerbaijan in Baku. Back in Budapest, Mate Patkai grabbed a late winner to punish Wales for Gareth Bale’s scuffed miss. Hungary now lead Group E by three points from Slovakia and Croatia; both of whom have played a game less.
23. Israel (Stay)
After four rounds of qualifying, who tops the competition goal scoring charts? Ronaldo? Mbappe? Kane? Actually, it’s Israel’s Eran Zahavi. The 31-year old striker grabbed back-to-back hat tricks after his curling free kick set Israel on their way to a 3-0 win in Latvia. However, celebrations were short lived, as Israel then crashed to a 4-0 loss to runaway Group G leaders in Poland. Despite the setback, Israel retain a one-point lead over Austria, who they defeated in March. Next up are games against Northern Macedonia and Slovenia in what looks like a four-horse race to finish second in the group.
22. Republic of Ireland (NE)
Mick McCarthy continued his fine start to his second spell as Ireland boss with two more wins to go top of Group D. Doing the double on hapless Gibraltar by an aggregate score of 3-0 will hardly have football’s elite quaking in their boots, but Shane Duffy’s late equalizer against Denmark could prove vital in the qualification battle. McCarthy doesn’t have the depth of talent to choose from that marked his previous spell as Ireland manager, however, he’s always been solid at making the best of the resources available to him. The Republic’s World Cup qualification campaign floundered on an inability to beat the better teams at home, McCarthy’s side must do better when they host Switzerland and Denmark in the autumn.
21. Czech Republic (RE)
After their 5-0 drubbing by England, the Czech’s got their qualification campaign up and running with back-to-back wins over the lesser sides of Group A. Patrik Schick grabbed a brace to beat Bulgaria 2-1, before Jakob Jankto set the Czech’s on their way to an easy 3-0 win over Montenegro. In what looks to be a race for the second spot in Group A, the Czech’s have a one-point lead over third place Kosovo ahead of their September clash in Pristina. However, Kosovo still have to face England twice and the Czech’s host Kosovo in their penultimate qualifier in November, making the Czech’s favorites to progress.
20. Bosnia and Herzegovina (-6)
This was a disappointing week for Bosnia, who suffered two damaging away defeats to leave them fifth in Group J. A surprise 2-0 defeat in Finland put the Bosnians on the back foot as they headed to Turin to face table-topping Italy. Bosnia rose to the challenge with veteran poacher Edin Dzeko finishing off a fine passing move for the halftime lead. However, a stunning equalizer brought the Italians level before Bosnia’s defense was breached again in the closing minutes of a 2-1 defeat. Realistically, Bosnia will need to win all of their remaining games to qualify via the group. Fortunately, Bosnia’s impressive Nations League campaign guarantees them a playoff spot.
19. Northern Ireland (+2)
Michael O’Neill’s side are the surprise leaders of Group C with a 100% record after four games. The schedule has massively worked in Northern Ireland’s favour, having faced both Estonia and Belarus twice. However, O’Neill’s team has done what they needed to do and beat what was put in front of them. They rode their luck in Eastern Europe this week with late goals from Josh Magennis and Paddy McNair, securing close victories in Estonia and Belarus respectively. Their remaining games are far tougher, with double-headers against Germany and Holland in the autumn. This team thrives on their underdog tag, and with their fervent home support behind them, they will be hopeful of giving their more illustrious rivals a tough time at Windsor Park.
18. Turkey (+4)
Turkey pulled off the biggest shock of qualifying to date with a stunning victory over World Champions France. In the white-hot atmosphere of Konya, Turkey made a blistering start and Kaan Ayhan’s 30th minute header gave them the lead. Cengiz Under then blasted home a second in the 40th minute. Turkey’s 2-0 win was thoroughly deserved with the hosts closer to adding a third than France were to pulling a goal back. Things then took a strange turn for the follow-up match away in Iceland. Turkey’s players were allegedly held at the airport for three hours amid claims of dirty tricks from their Icelandic hosts and a row that escalated to government level. When the game started, Turkey struggled to reproduce their earlier form and failed to cope with Iceland’s direct style and fell to a 2-1 defeat.
17. Finland (RE)
An impressive week from Finland saw them take control of the second spot in Group J. Teemu Pukki carried his club form into the national team with two fine finishes, securing a crucial home win over Bosnia. The Fins then capped a fine season with a 2-0 win in Liechtenstein, Pukki again grabbed the breakthrough before Benjamin Kallman made sure of the points. That makes it three wins from four and gives Finland a three-point lead on Armenia, with five points over both Greece and Bosnia. With a playoff spot in reserve from winning their Nations League Group back in the autumn, Finland are well placed to reach their first ever major tournament.
16. Iceland (+3)
Iceland put a disappointing year behind them to ignite their qualification bid with two much-needed victories. First up, Johann Gudmundsson’s fine solo effort broke Albania’s resistance for a scrappy 1-0 win. Then came that diplomatic spat with Turkey, but when the game started, it was a pair of trademark Iceland goals from Ragnar Sigurdsson that proved decisive as Iceland recorded a 2-1 win. It hauls Iceland level on points with both France and Turkey in Group H, but with a significantly worse goal difference. However, this week will act as a confidence booster to a team that went winless at last summer’s World Cup and through this season’s Nations League.
15. Sweden (-3)
A mixed week concluded a fine season for Sweden. Against Malta, the forward pairing of Robin Quaison and Marcus Berg again proved effective, with Quaison opening the scoring and Berg flicking on for Viktor Claesson for the second in a 3-0 win. However, a trip to face Spain in the Bernabeu proved a bridge too far for the Swedes. They held out for 64 minutes, when they conceded the first of two penalties that earned the Spanish a slightly flattering 3-0 win. Sweden has a playoff berth to fall back on should they fall out of the top two in Group F. Next up lies an away game against the Faroe Islands and a derby date with Scandinavian rivals Norway in Solna.
14. Russia (+1)
The season ended on a high for Russia as they picked up two wins and a glut of goals to tighten their grip on second place in Group I. San Marino are the lowest ranked side in world football, but Russia’s 9-0 win was still impressive with Artem Dzyuba bagging four goals. The follow-up win over Cyprus was less emphatic, as Aleksei Ionov’s first half strike proved enough for a 1-0 win in Nizhny Novgorod. Russia now have a three-point lead on third-placed Kazakhstan and fourth-placed Scotland, with their +12 goal difference practically worth an extra point. It caps a season of solid progress for Russia after their better than expected World Cup showing.
13. Poland (Stay)
Poland’s football may not be the easiest on the eye, but they’re proving hugely effective in Group G. New striking sensation Krzysztof Piatek earned a 1-0 win in Macedonia with a spectacular overhead kick. Poland then turned in their best performance of the season against Israel. Piatek started the rout with a first half strike, then Robert Lewandowski marked his record-equaling 106th cap with his 57th goal for his country. Kamil Grosicki and Damian Kadzior rounded off the scoring on a 4-0 win. If Poland can beat Slovenia and Austria in September, they’ll be within touching distance of the finals.
12. Denmark (-3)
After their late comeback to secure a draw against Switzerland in March, Denmark found themselves on the receiving end when the Republic of Ireland struck in the 85th minute to grab a point in Copenhagen. Denmark grabbed their first win of qualifying with a 5-1 hammering of Georgia with Yousef Poulsen and Kasper Dolberg among the goals. Denmark find themselves five points behind Ireland with a game in hand, however, their successful Nations League campaign guarantees the Danes a playoff berth.
11. Ukraine (+5)
Ukraine’s qualification campaign peaked with a 5-0 thrashing of a talented Serbia side. Two goals in a minute from young midfielder Viktor Tsygankov stunned the Serbs. Three days later against Luxembourg, it was a more subdued performance with Roman Yaremchuk’s early header bagging a 1-0 win. It caps an impressive season for Andriy Shevchenko’s men, who will play in Nations League A when the competition runs again in the 2020-21 season. On Saturday, Ukraine’s Under 20’s won the World Cup, wrapping up the title with an impressive 3-1 win over South Korea.
10. Croatia (+1)
The World Cup runners finally up got their European qualification bid off the ground with a 2-1 home win over Wales. Not for the first time Ivan Perisic was the star of the show against British opposition, as he grabbed the winner. Croatia seem to be getting back on track after their post-World Cup slump and the retirements of key men in Danijel Subasic and Mario Mandzukic. They have plenty of work to do to qualify, but this team has a track record of doing just enough to qualify.
9. Italy (+1)
After the embarrassment of missing the World Cup, Italy look unlikely to be staying at home next summer by making it four wins in a row from qualifying. First up, Greece were efficiently dispatched, as Andrea Belotti’s darting run opened up the Greek defense for Nicolo Barella to open the scoring followed by a fine Lorenzo Insigne strike and a Leonardo Bonucci header. Then the Italians were seriously challenged by Bosnia, who took a first-half lead in Turin. However, Insigne was again inspired, first scoring a stunning volley and then cutting back late on for Marco Verratti to seal the win. Mancini continues to search for the right combination up front, but there’s little doubt Insigne is a key part of that puzzle.
8. Switzerland (-2)
Two defeats at the Nations League finals underlined Switzerland’s status as the best of the rest. They were on the receiving end of Cristiano Ronaldo’s hat trick in the semifinal and were condemned to fourth place with a penalty shootout loss to England. On the bright side, Switzerland delivered the finest performance of the entire Nations League with their inspired 5-2 win over Belgium back in November. Switzerland look handily placed to qualify for Euro 2020 from Group D, with their upcoming trip to face Ireland presenting a chance to take control of the group.
7. Germany (Stay)
Germany had the bizarre situation of needing to replace their injured manager this month, with Marcus Sorg filling in for Joachim Low. An away game against Belarus was never likely to stretch Germany and in-form wing duo Marco Reus and Leroy Sane grabbed the goals against their deeply defensive hosts. Then in Mainz, Reus starred again in an 8-0 thumping of Estonia. Serge Gnabry is fast emerging as a key figure for the new look Germany, who appear to be getting back to their feet after their World Cup and Nations League disasters. They look certainties to qualify, but it will remain uncertain until the finals if Germany are truly back.
6. Netherlands (+2)
It proved a case of two steps forward and then one back for the Dutch in the Nations League Finals, as an impressive victory over England showed how much the Dutch have advanced this season, but a tame defeat in the final to Portugal demonstrated they’re not the finished article. Inevitably, Ronald Koeman has piggybacked on Ajax’s fine Champions League run with Frenkie De Jong and Matthias De Ligt now key figures for their country. While at at the Nations League Finals, Holland’s rivals stole a march in the Euro 2020 qualifiers. Northern Ireland now has a nine-point lead over Holland, having played two more games. Holland still have their destiny in their own hands and remain favorites to qualify, but they can’t afford a hiccup.
5. Spain (Stay)
Spain’s season ended with a flourish on the pitch and a perfect record in Euro 2020 qualifying. However, it also ended with caretaker manager Robert Moreno taking over permanently from Luis Enrique. His departure is a blow to a team onto their fourth manager in little over a year. A routine 4-1 win over the Faroe Islands was followed by a crucial 3-0 win over Sweden, with Sergio Ramos’ second half penalty breaking Swedish resistance. In a mixed season trouncing Croatia 6-0 was a huge high, but Spain’s defensive frailties were then exposed by England, who made the Nations League finals at their expense. An improved season at Real Madrid for Marco Asensio and Isco would be a huge boost for the new manager, as he attempts to win Spain’s third European Championship in four attempts.
4. England (-2)
A year of major progress ended in another extra time semifinal disappointment for the Three Lions, as John Stones’ horrendous defensive error condemned them to defeat against Holland. England at least secured third place in the Nations League, as the penalty shootout saw Jordan Pickford emerge yet again as the hero for a deserved win over Switzerland. Finding a tempo setting midfielder remains England’s biggest issue, as shown by Holland’s Frenkie De Jong’s performance in that semifinal defeat. James Maddison and Phil Foden will push their claims at the Euro Under 21’s this month, while a fully fit Harry Winks can expect a recall in September. Despite the setback, England are the only European nation to make both the World Cup and Nations League last four.
3. France (-2)
One year on from their World Cup triumph and everything looks a lot less rosy for France. The French were shambolic in Konya and fell to a deserved 2-0 defeat against Turkey. A routine 4-0 win over Andorra lightened the gloom and saw Kylian Mbappe score his 100th senior goal at the tender age of 20. However, France are now locked level on points with both Iceland and Turkey in Group H, having previously missed out on the Nations League finals. Didier Deschamps has stuck largely with the side that delivered the World Cup, but will be keen to see the uncertain club futures of Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann resolved quickly.
2. Belgium (+1)
Early goals from Dries Mertens and Timothy Castagne set Belgium on their way to a routine win over Kazakhstan before Romelu Lukaku rounded off the scoring. Lukaku continued to put a troubled season in Manchester behind him with a brace to down Scotland and stretch Belgium’s unbeaten home run to 17 games. The only blot on Belgium’s season came in that 5-2 caning they received from Switzerland that ultimately cost them a shot at the Nations League title. At club level, Roberto Martinez will be concerned by the difficult seasons suffered by Lukaku and Thibaut Courtois. After their third-placed finish at the World Cup, Martinez will be confident of Belgium reaching a first major final in 40 years next summer.
1. Portugal (+3)
Congratulations to the inaugural Nations League Champions, who now hold both of Europe’s major titles. Portugal’s combination of a veteran defence and midfield skills of Manchester City playmaker Bernardo Silva made for the only unbeaten run from League A. The return of the talismanic Cristiano Ronaldo with a dazzling hat trick downed Switzerland in the semifinal. Then in the final, Gonçalo Guedes became a national hero by bagging the only goal against Holland.
Dropping out- Northern Macedonia, Wales, Serbia, Norway
Featured Image: Euronews