The World Cup is in the books, and the UEFA Nations League is the current focus of Europe’s national teams. Meanwhile the qualifying draw for Euro 2020 is little over a month away, so how are Europe’s top 20 teams shaping up?
20. Austria- After a bitterly disappointing World Cup Qualifying campaign, Austria got their Nations League campaign up and running thanks to Marko Arnautovic’s goal against Northern Ireland. With the unpredictable Arnautovic in attack and assured David Alaba in defence, Austria will fancy their chances of overhauling group leaders Bosnia in Vienna next month and push for promotion to Division A.
19. Sweden- After an excellent World Cup, Sweden is facing relegation to Division C of the Nations League. Their famed defensive resilience abandoned them in the closing minutes of their home game with Turkey as they conceded two costly goals. Star Victor Lindelof has endured a torrid start to the season at Manchester United, and they continue to struggle for goals in the absence of Zlatan.
18. Bosnia & Herzegovina- It’s been a quiet few years for Bosnia after their peak of qualifying for Brazil 2014. A point in Austria will secure their promotion to Nations League A, as their record goal scorer Edin Dzeko’s brace was enough to see off Northern Ireland. Dzeko & Juventus’ Miralem Pjanic remain Bosnia’s key men and are well positioned for one last assault at Euro 2020.
17. Serbia- Despite qualifying for The World Cup, Serbia finds themselves in League C of the Nations League. A win over neighbors Montenegro puts them in prime position for promotion to League B. With one of world football’s hottest talents in Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Akexsander Mitrovic, Nemanja Matic and Alex Kolarov, this is a team the big guns would like to avoid in the Euro 2020 qualifying draw.
16. Wales- For too long there have been two Wales teams: The one with Gareth Bale that got to the semifinals of Euro 2016, and the one without who failed to qualify for the World Cup. Ryan Giggs now has some new attacking talents to nurture in Harry Wilson, Tyler Roberts and David Brooks. Wilson’s free kick secured a win over a rugged Republic of Ireland in Dublin to keep Wales’ hopes of promotion alive.
With the visit to Denmark next month, they surely need Bale and Aaron Ramsey back. The creaking back line also remains a concern. With a new young manager and fresh talent, Wales look much more than Bale plus 10.
15. Ukraine- After a dull Euro 2016 campaign and missing out on the World Cup, Ukraine has the consolation of promotion to Division A of the Nations League, and with it, a playoff berth for the Euro 2020 finals. Their squad is mostly built around Champions League regular Shakhtar Donetsk, but it’s West Ham’s Andriy Yarmalenko who adds a sprinkling of stardust, as he’s now just 12 strikes short of the legendary Andriy Shevchenko’s record of 48 international goals.
14. Iceland- It seems the fairytale is drawing to a close. After the high of Euro 2016, Iceland’s Norse Gods looked distinctly mortal at the World Cup. Worse has followed in the Nations League with a 6-0 hiding in Switzerland, followed by home defeats to Belgium and Switzerland. With relegation to Division B now confirmed, the one positive for Iceland is the return to form of star man Gylfi Sigurdsson. Iceland fans will be anxiously awaiting the qualifying draw for Euro 2020.
13. Poland- Few teams flopped as much this summer as Poland. Going into the World Cup as a seeded team, they were out after losing their opening two games and have now picked up just one point from their opening three Nations League ties. They’re ultimately a veteran side for whom time is running out. Any side featuring the predatory Robert Lewandowski remains a threat, but they need to find fresh blood and soon if they are to make the 2020 Finals.
12. Netherlands- Are the Oranje back? After the disastrous failures to qualify for either Euro 2016 or Russia 2018, there appears to be signs of life under the stewardship of Ronald Koeman. While their 3-0 win over Germany was a flattering scoreline, it did represent their best competitive result since the 2014 World Cup. Koeman has a solid defence to build around with Jasper Cillessen and Virgil Van Dijk, while Giorgio Wijnaldum has carried his club form into the national team.
Goals remain in short supply as Holland waits to see if Justin Kluivert can live up to his father’s legacy in attack. The Netherlands are still a long short of the standards set by the likes of Cruyff, Van Basten and Robben but they are starting to move in the right direction.
11. Italy- Roberto Mancini’s Italy roster is making a steady recovery after the Azzurri’s shock failure to reach the World Cup. Defeat to Portugal leaves Italy needing a win over the Portuguese next month and hoping for Poland to do them a favor. Gigi Buffon’s boots are inevitably proving big for Gianluigi Donnarumma to fill, but he is for now helped by veteran duo Giorgio Chiellini and Christian Bonucci.
In midfield, Jorginho may just fill the Andrea Pirlo shaped hole in midfield, but scoring remains a problem with Italy struggling to find a consistent striker, the ever eccentric Mario Balotelli remains their only striker in double figures in that famous blue shirt. Mancini has a lot to ponder with the Euro 2020 qualifiers just around the corner.
10. Russia- After their unexpected run to the World Cup quarterfinals, Russia has kept the feel-good factor going and are closing in on promotion to Nations League Division A. World Cup star Denis Cheryshev scored in a 2-0 win over Turkey to leave Russia requiring a draw in Sweden to ensure their place in the elite group. Cheryshev, Alex Golovin and fit again Artum Dzyuba are the key men for Russia.
However, replacing the retired Igor Akinfeev in-goal remains an issue with no outstanding candidate to takeover the goalkeeping gloves. Russia is proving their successful summer was down to more than home advantage.
9. Denmark- It has been a strange season for Denmark, having settled their problems with a playing squad that went on strike. Denmark requires a draw in Wales and a home win over Ireland to win promotion to League A. Defensively, they remain as resolute as ever, with Kasper Schmeichel leading a back line yet to concede a Nations League goal.
However, they are sweating on the return to fitness of playmaker Christian Eriksen, who remains in the Tottenham treatment room. Denmark remains a sturdy upper-middleweight side capable of punching above their weight.
8. Switzerland- The perennial last 16 team of major competition continues to grind along at a steady pace. Wins over Iceland and a narrow loss to Belgium typify where this team remains. They’re reliable at the back, and tidy in midfield with Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka capable of the odd moment of genius.
They lack a goal-scoring #9, although Haris Seferovic grabbed his 14th international goal in Iceland. Switzerland will retain their place in League A and qualify for Euro 2020 with a bit to spare, but need to find more firepower if they’re to make an impression on the last 8 in 2020.
7. Croatia- The World Cup finalists appear to be a team in regression. A 6-0 spanking from Spain was followed by a poor 0-0 in their World Cup semifinal rematch with England. Striker Mario Mandzukic and goalkeeper Danijel Subasic have both retired, while Dejan Lovren is no longer a first choice at Liverpool.
Croatia still has the best midfielder in the world in Luka Modric, and top class creative talents in Ivan Rakitic and Ivan Perisic. However, this is a team growing old together and now need to win at Wembley to stay in League A.
6. Germany- The deposed World Champions have won just once in six competitive games this year, and are facing up to the possibility of Nations League relegation on the back of a disastrous World Cup defence. Meanwhile, the poor handling of Mesut Ozil’s retirement and rumors of cliques in the dressing room just won’t go away.
The poor form of long-standing stars Thomas Muller and Manuel Neuer are giving Joachim Low plenty of headaches. The positives for Low are the performance against France last week was positive, and in Toni Kroos, Julian Draxler, Leroy Sane and Marco Reus, there’s no shortage of attacking talent. Germany is now at their lowest ebb since 2004.
5. Portugal- The European Champions remain the masters of the ugly win. Despite the absence of Ronaldo, Portugal is closing in on a place in next summers Nations League Finals. Andre Silva has been among the goals, while Bernardo Silva is enjoying an excellent campaign with Manchester City. The serious allegations against Ronaldo cast a long shadow over this side, but for now, Fernando Santos will keep grinding out the wins.
4. England- Just when expectations went down a notch, Gareth Southgate’s team came up with England’s best performance in a decade to stun Spain in Sevilla. Southgate tweaked his formation to 4-3-3 and unleashed a dynamic frontline of Marcus Rashford, Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling.
This young team continues to get younger with Jadon Sancho, Harry Winks and Joe Gomez now establishing themselves. England needs Croatia to hold Spain to a draw next in the Nations League to get a shot at making the finals, and Southgate insists they’re not the finished yet, but they’re clearly getting closer.
3. Spain- Despite England bursting their bubble, Spain is back. After their disappointing World Cup, new coach Luis Enrique has brought speed and incision to a side who spent the summer mired in endless sideways passing. Strikers Pablo Alcacer and Rodrigo have been key to the more direct style, but Spain can still keep the ball as well as anyone with Sergio Busquets and Thiago.
The defence looks shaky in the absence of the retired Gerard Pique, with Nacho and Sergio Ramos severely exposed by England’s front three. A win in Croatia (who they beat 6-0 in September) will guarantee them a place in the Nations League finals and they will be among the favorites come Euro 2020.
2. Belgium- After receiving a heroes reception for their World Cup homecoming, Belgium has continued to impress. Eden Hazard is arguably the most in-form player in the world at present, and after Romelu Lukaku’s brace saw off Switzerland, they need just a draw in the return match to ensure their place in the Nations League final four.
They have strength across their first eleven and have made their Nations League progress without the injured Kevin De Bruyne. The only worry for coach Roberto Martinez is that the defence is getting older with Jan Vertonghen now at 31 and Vincent Kompany at 32. That is a matter for the future, as Belgium is currently a prime contender for both the Nations League and European Championship titles.
1. France- The World Champions are the team to beat. They started slowly against Germany, but Antione Griezmann dug them out of trouble. France doesn’t always thrill, but they always appear to have an extra gear they can employ when needed. Kylian Mbappe is only going to improve, Paul Pogba is proving far more consistent for France than he is Manchester United, and Raphael Varane appears to have put his injury problems behind him.
The major concern is goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, who’s form has been erratic. France is still dependent on veteran forward Oliver Giroud to make the team click. However, France is the world’s best team.
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