That Nations League group phase is now over; congratulations to Portugal, England, Switzerland and Holland, who will battle it out in June next summer to win the inaugural Nations League title. It brings a close to a huge year in international football that saw France crowned World Champions and European sides dominate the World Cup. So with international football on hiatus until March, what is the state of the nations?
24. Scotland (NE)
The Tartan Army finally have something to celebrate, thanks largely to the outstanding contribution of Celtic’s James Forrest. Ryan Fraser got the ball rolling with an early goal in Albania before Forrest’s brace ensured a 4-0 win. Then at Hampden Park, Forrest’s hat trick inspired a come-from-behind win over Israel that secured promotion to Nations League B, and with it at least a playoff place to reach Euro 2020.
After a tough start, things seem to be coming together for Alex McLeish’s side with Fraser, Forrest, Ryan Christie and Scott McTominay providing a new youthful midfield. Could that twenty-year absence from major finals end?
23. Finland (NE)
Finland’s national side has given little cause for optimism since the days of Sami Hypia and Jari Litmanen. However, promotion to Nations League B at the expense of Hungary and Greece is an impressive achievement. They managed it by winning their first four games, making their final two defeats dead rubbers. Solid defending proved key to promotion, as they racked up four successive clean sheets alongside the goals Teemu Pukki struck in three straight 1-0 wins. Bayer Leverkusen goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky, skipper Tim Sparv and defender Paulus Arajuuri remain key experienced men in a largely youthful side.
22. Czech Republic (NE)
A solid Nations League campaign from the Czech’s saw them consolidate their place in League B and crucially a place in pot 2 for the Euro 2020 draw. The squad doesn’t have the stellar names from the Czech’s recent past, however, the form of young striker Patrik Schick is a cause for optimism. Schick got the winning goals in both Nations League clashes with neighbors Slovakia that condemned the Slovaks to relegation. The Czech’s remain a young improving side for whom qualification for Euro 2020 is the key objective.
21. Austria (-1)
A stalemate against Bosnia & Herzegovina in Vienna saw Austria miss out on promotion to Nations League A. However, Valentio Lozaro’s late strike at Windsor Park ensured they finished on a high with a 2-1 win over Northern Ireland. Importantly, Austria remains in pot 2 for the Euro 2020 draw, increasing their chances of making the finals twice on the bounce.
David Alaba and Marko Arnautovic inevitably remain the star men, but veteran goal poacher Marc Janko has stuck around, and could prove critical in the qualification campaign ahead.
20. Norway (NE)
Norway secured promotion from Nations League C thanks to Ola Kamara’s brace in Cyprus. It won the Norwegians a closely-fought group against Bulgaria, and that playoff berth it guarantees for Euro 2020 could prove vital for a nation who hasn’t qualified for a major finals since Euro 2000.
The star names remain Bournemouth striker Joshua King, and the precouisly gifted Martin Odegaard. Odegaard is still only 19, but has been hyped as the next ‘big thing’ for years, and is now making his way in senior football.
19. Wales (-3)
Not a great week for Ryan Giggs’ side, who saw their hopes of promotion to League A slip away with a home defeat to Denmark. That was followed by a shocking loss in a friendly with Albania, which admittedly featured an experimental Welsh lineup. Gareth Bale inevitably remains paramount to his nations hopes, and Giggs is nurturing a promising crop of attacking players to support him.
With Ashley Williams now aged 34, the defense looks vulnerable. The hopes rest on the young shoulders of Chelsea prospect Ethan Ampadu. This isn’t a crisis team yet, but for Giggs, the honeymoon is now over.
18. Serbia (-1)
As expected, Serbia confirmed their promotion to Nations League B. Alexsandar Mitrovic’s got the winner against Montenegro before a routine 4-1 win over relegated Lithuania sealed promotion. Mitrovic and Sergej Milikovic-Savic showed flashes at the World Cup, and bring attacking dynamism to the team. Nemanja Matic and Aleksandar Kolorov provide stability, as Serbia remains in pot 3 for the Euro 2020 draw.
17. Iceland (-3)
League A of the Nations League proved a bridge too far for Iceland, as they ended the campaign with the unblemished record of 4 defeats from their 4 matches. For all they have achieved in recent years, it is worth remembering this is a tiny nation with the smallest population ever to qualify for a World Cup.
They remain in pot 2 for the Euro qualifying draw, which gives them an excellent chance of reaching a third successive major finals. On the pitch, Gylfi Sigurdsson has enjoyed an improved second season at Everton. They may be down, but the Norse Gods aren’t out yet.
16. Ukraine (-1)
Ukraine had already won promotion to League A in October, but things haven’t gone their way since with star man Andriy Yarmolenko suffering an Achilles tear. In his absence, they went down 4-1 to Slovakia in a dead rubber and finished with a friendly draw away to Turkey.
Aside from Yarmolenko, Ukraine lacks star names, but makes up for it with their strong club contingents from Shaktar Donetsk and Dynamo Kiev. For now, a place in pot 2 for the qualifying draw gives them a strong chance of qualifying for Euro 2020.
15. Poland (-2)
Poland’s miserable 2018 closed with a spirited 1-1 draw away in Portugal. A point in Portugal was too little too late to avoid relegation to League B after a winless campaign, while their World Cup bid ended at the group stage.
On the plus side, they will be in pot 1 for the 2020 qualifying draw, and Robert Lewandowski has taken his caps total to a staggering 102 with 55 goals. Meanwhile, goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski and midfielders Mateusz Klich and Piotr Zielinski are enjoying outstanding seasons at club level.
14. Russia (-4)
The successful season for Russia ended on a downer with back-to-back defeats. They were easily beaten 3-0 by Germany in a friendly before seeing their Nations League promotion hopes turn to dust in a 2-0 defeat to Sweden. It is worth remembering this was a side most expected to fall at the first hurdle in their home World Cup, before going on to the quarterfinals.
Manager Stanislav Cherchesov has some talent to work with, including Denis Cheryshev, whose absence was keenly felt in Sweden. Replacing retired goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev is proving difficult, with Zenit St Petersburg’s Andrea Lunyov stepping up to starter status. Overall, Russia is in a far better place than they’d hoped for at the beginning of June.
13. Bosnia and Herzegovina (+5)
Bosnia got the point they needed to ensure promotion to Nations League A with a 0-0 draw in Austria. Then a narrow 1-0 friendly loss in Spain showed they are capable of giving Europe’s elite sides a game. They will be in pot 2 when the Euro qualifying draw is made, giving them an excellent chance to reach their first European finals.
Veteran goal poacher Edin Dzeko is now just 1 cap short of a century of appearances for his country, while their defense remains solid. Bosnia could find life in Nations League A tough when the competition reconvenes, but their rise from minnows to dark horses is impressive.
12. Sweden (+7)
Sweden pulled off an unlikely escape to win promotion to Nations League A. Having picked up just one point from their opening two games, the Swedes traveled to Turkey, where skipper Andreas Granqvist’s penalty ensured a hard-fought 1-0 win. That set up a winner takes all match with Russia, where Granqvist’s central defensive partner Viktor Lindelof got the decisive strike before veteran strike Marcus Berg bagged the second to guarantee promotion.
It caps a satisfying year for Sweden, who emerged from a tough qualification and group phase to make the World Cup quarterfinals this summer – their best run since USA ’94. Post-Zlatan, they remain short on star names and a consistent goal scorer, but no one can deny they’ve earned a place at European football’s top table.
11. Germany (-5)
Holland’s win over France condemned the Germans to the humiliation of relegation from Nations League A, before the Dutch rubbed salt in the wound by coming from two down to grab a draw in Gelsenkirchen. It means Germany have won just one of their seven competitive games this year, and it sees them drop into pot 2 for the Euro 2020 qualifying draw.
They still have enormous talent in their squad, and Leroy Sane’s two goals in as many games highlighted what a mistake Joachim Low made by excluding him from his World Cup squad. Low has wisely moved on from veteran midfielder Sami Khedira, but needs to rediscover the winning formula quickly if Germany is to get back on track for the Euros.
10. Italy (+1)
It’s been a case of slow and steady progress for Roberto Mancini’s Italy. A dour 0-0 draw with Portugal in the San Siro eliminated Italy from the Nations League, but they remain in League A. Talented goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma has stepped into the shoes of the legendary Buffon, while Giorgio Chielleni won his 100th cap against Portugal. Italy outplayed Portugal for much of that game with Jorginho, with Marco Verratti and youngster Nicole Barella forming a promising midfield.
Goal scoring remains the problem, and Italy’s only goal of the week was Matteo Pollitano’s injury time strike against the USA on Tuesday night. Finding the right combination in attack is the key to getting the Azzurri back among the contenders.
9. Denmark (-)
Denmark capped a fine year with promotion to Nations League A. An exemplary display of counter attacking football saw of Wales 2-1 with Nicolai Jorgensen and Martin Braithwaite grabbing high-class goals. An uneventful 0-0 draw with Ireland in Copenhagen closed out their Nations League campaign.
It has been a year of progress for Denmark, who enjoyed a fruitful World Cup before gaining promotion to the Nations League top-tier. They remain rock solid in defense, with the playmaking of Christian Eriksen and the pace of Yussuf Poulsen making them a danger on the counter. Denmark has the ability to beat top class sides on their day, but have too few world-class talents to do it consistently.
8. Croatia (-1)
A week of strange contrasts for Croatia, who exacted revenge on one team and were then on the receiving end from another. In Zagreb, two goals from young full back Tin Jedvaj secured a dramatic win over Spain to throw their Nations League group wide open. From there, it was on to Wembley for a rematch with England. Andrej Kramaric looked to have put Croatia through to the semifinals with a fine counter attacking goal. That was not be the case this time, with England coming back and sending Croatia crashing to League B.
Croatia’s key players are ageing (Modric, Perisic, Rakitic), but they remain committed to the cause, and new talents are emerging in Jedvaj, Mateo Kovacic and Nikola Vlasic. Croatia may have taken a step back since the World Cup, but they are a long way from finished.
7. Spain (-4)
It seems Luis Enrqiue’s rebuilding job is a bigger task than first predicted. After a fine start to life in the Nations League, Spain followed up a home loss to England with defeat in Croatia and an undignified spat between Sergio Ramos and Dejan Lovren. England’s win over Croatia then saw Spain miss out on a place in the Nations League final that seemed all but theirs a month ago.
Spain got back to winning ways when Celta Vigo’s Brais Mendez scored on his debut to secure a 1-0 win over Bosnia. Never mind the win, it’s clear that Spain has problems. The glaring issue is in defense, where the loss of the retired Gerard Pique has been severely felt.
6. Netherlands (+6)
After failing to qualify for the last two major tournaments, Holland surprised everyone by beating out both France and Germany to win Nations League Group 1 and qualify for the finals. An inspired defensive display lead inevitably by Virgil Van Dijk saw off France 2-0 in Rotterdam. Yet again, Georginio Wijnaldum was key, as was the improving Memphis Depay up front. Then in Kelsenkirchen, the Dutch found themselves down 2-0 with minutes to play before 2 stunning goals from Quincy Promes and Virgil Van Dijk earned Holland the point to take them through to the Nations League finals.
This isn’t the return of ‘total football’, but Ronald Koeman has turned the Netherlands around in his first year in charge. His side is defensively strong, built around Van Dijk and a solid midfield pairing of Ajax’s Frenkie De Jong and Atalanta’s Marten de Roon. Up front, Depay continues to rehabilitate his career at Lyon, and is finally living up to his early promise alongside Wijnaldum, who’s enjoying an excellent season at Liverpool. After missing out on back-to-back tournaments, Holland has a shot at the Nations League crown.
5. Switzerland (+3)
The Swiss produced the performance of the week to smash #1 Belgium 5-2 on Sunday night. What made it even more remarkable was that the Swiss were down 2-0 after just 17 minutes. Xherdan Shaqiri was the orchestrator here, but young full-back Kevin Mbabu was outstanding, as was the much maligned Haris Serferovic. The Benfica striker had managed just 14 goals in his previous 58 caps, but produced a wonderful hat trick to put the perennial last sixteen Swiss into the Nations League last four.
Switzerland may have slipped under the radar heading into the Nations League finals, but this is a side that has won 14 of their last 18 competitive games. They have defensive stability, a fine goalkeeper, and Shaqiri to provide the unexpected.
4. Belgium (-2)
What a strange month it’s been for Belgium, as they overtook France in the FIFA World Rankings to be crowned #1. That looks set to be short-lived, after they were stunned 5-2 by the Swiss. Belgium was missing key players in Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne and Jan Vertonghen, but it was still a shock to see a side featuring Vincent Kompany, Toby Alderweireld and Thibaut Courtois concede 5 goals.
Belgium’s competitive record remains outstanding- 18 wins from a possible 21 since Euro 2016. However, they do lack strength in depth, particularly in defence.
3. England (+1)
The Three Lions positive year ended on a high when late goals from Jesse Lingard and Harry Kane saw them into the Nations League finals. Gareth Southgate’s side started the week by crushing a poor USA side 3-0, and saying adios to record goalscorer Wayne Rooney before their comeback win over Croatia. Unsurprisingly, it was Kane who grabbed the winner, but it was the introduction from the bench of Jadon Sancho, Lingard and Dele Alli that swung the tie England’s way.
England has undoubtedly improved since the World Cup with new recruits Sancho, Ben Chilwell, Harry Winks and the fit again Ross Barkley.
2. France (-1)
This week saw a surprise 2-0 loss, thanks to an inspired defensive display from Holland. There appears to be a few chinks in the French armor, notably their midfield that badly missed Paul Pogba.
France made up for their Nations League loss with a hard-fought 1-0 friendly win over Uruguay, thanks to Giroud’s second half penalty. France is still the team to beat, and both their defensive strength and firepower in attack can be devastating.
1. Portugal (+4)
The European Champions move up to the top of the rankings after qualifying for the Nations League finals as the only unbeaten side in League A. Fernando Santos and company have long been renowned for negative tactics and game management, but they’ve played some attractive attacking football in the Nations League with Bernardo Silva in inspired form.
They managed all of that without Ronaldo, who’ll surely be back for the finals. Ronaldo certainly inspired his teammates at the World Cup, although they ultimately fell to Uruguay in the last sixteen. Portugal has a balance of youth in the likes of Andre Silva and a wily backline in Pepe, Jose Fonte and Rui Patricio. The question is whether Portugal will revert to type and play a negative game when there’s a trophy on the line.
Picture Credits: Sundaypost, India Times, Fifa, Times Now