Can’t Stop The Rock: UEFA Nations League Hitters & Shitters

The second international break of the 2018/19 season arrived this weekend like an untimely bout of hemorrhoids, just as the European club season had started to get into full swing. Not even an unseasonally balmy Saturday afternoon could ease the absence of top flight football, while fans of non-league clubs had to put up with fairweather rubberneckers turning up and ruining their usually serene weekend escapes. Even so, the new Nations League format managed to throw up a few intriguing stories across five days of action, but who were the big hitters and who had an absolute shitter in Round 2?

 

Hitters

pukki

Gibraltar – Dwayne Johnson’s social media presence received a little boost on Saturday night, as Europe joined together to celebrate Gibraltar’s victory in Armenia. It was a landmark first competitive win for the British Overseas Territory, who joined FIFA in 2016. There’s been little to cheer for Team 54 over the past two years, as qualification for Euro 2016 and World Cup 2018 returned a total record of Played 20, Lost 20, Conceded 100, but their Nations League campaign received lift-off on an historic night in Yerevan.

The evening had started in bizarre fashion, with the teams lined up for the national anthems only for Gibraltar to be serenaded with the anthem of Liechtenstein. The hosts duly apologised after the match, but given the smash and grab nature of their win, perhaps it should have been Julio Cesar Ribas’ team extending an olive branch. In a match that saw Armenia take thirty-four shots on goal, it was Joseph Chipolina’s second-half penalty that separated the two sides, after Hrayr Mkoyan’s clumsy challenge on Lee Casciaro.

Kyle Goldwin, Gibraltar’s veteran stopper who didn’t start his career in football until he was 24, then kept The Collective’s attack, which included Arsenal’s Henrikh Mkhitaryan, at bay to secure a surprise three points for the team from the Rock. For Armenia’s new head coach Armen Gyulbudaghyants, it represented the worst possible start to his reign, with tonight’s meeting against group-toppers Macedonia representing a far tougher test. For Gibraltar, a night to remember, and renewed confidence as they prepare for the visit of Liechtenstein – perhaps they can borrow the Armenian FA’s copy of the visitors anthem.

 

Teemu Pukki – League C has so far thrown up some of the more interesting results in the inaugural Nations League, as the likes of Scotland and Bulgaria have given themselves a fighting chance of reaching the playoffs for a place at Euro 2020. Finland, meanwhile, went top of the group on Friday after their third successive 1-0 win, before a victory over group favourites Greece left them needing just one point from their final two games to secure promotion.

While a defence that hasn’t been breached for 389 minutes has played a massive part in the Eagle-Owls’ success, the form of Norwich City striker Teemu Pukki has also been crucial. Signed this summer after an impressive spell in the Danish Superliga with Brondby, Pukki has played a major part in the Canaries early season surge towards the playoff spots, registering five goals in nine games in the Championship. For Finland, he’s scored the winning goal in their first three Nations League games, taking his total for the national team to 15. Adept either out-wide or through the middle, Pukki’s hold-up play has been key to Finland’s success, while his penchant for a rasping long-ranger has contributed significantly to the Finnish goal threat.

Against Greece, Pukki was withdrawn after twelve minutes through injury, but thankfully for the Finns the goalscoring burden was lifted by Pyry Soiri and Glen Kamara. If Markku Kanerva’s team can take a point home from Athens in November, that spot at Euro 2020 might start looking a little more attainable. Should they finish top of the group, Pukki will undoubtedly be owed a debt of gratitude.

 

The importance of supporters – Friday night’s encore of the World Cup semi-final between Croatia and England was always like to be a little ‘After the Lord Mayor’s Show’. Words like ‘revenge’ and ‘retribution’ had been bandied about in the build up, but with England likely to experiment a little with their youthful additions, and Croatia suffering an injury crisis, there was little chance of the intensity from the Luzhniki Stadium being replicated.

In fact it was so far after the Lord Mayor’s Show that all the spectators had gone home. Croatia were forced to play the fixture behind closed doors thanks to a swastika being imprinted on the pitch ahead of their Euro 2016 qualifier against Italy. The result was an utterly bizarre game that had the feel of a Sunday League match being mistakenly broadcast on subscription television. Though sets of both fans attempted to catch a glimpse of the action from the hills surrounding the Stadion Rujevica, the complete lack of atmosphere inside the ground made an uninspiring goalless draw all the more deflating.

It provides a timely reminder that football supporters are vital to the game as a spectacle. Given recent reports that Premier League clubs no longer rely on gate receipts to survive, and La Liga’s agreement to send fixtures over to the United States, its worth reminding the money men in the game that, without people in the stands, football loses out. Any Premier League clubs watching the flat performances of England and Croatia would do well to heed the warning, and try to mend a few bridges with their respective supporters.

 

Oh, go on then. England (for 45 minutes at least) – After the bore draw in Rijeka, England fans and pundits had the calculators out to decipher what kind of result Southgate’s soldiers needed in the return leg against Croatia next month. With head-to-head record superseding goal difference, only a goalless draw or win would ensure England avoided the ignomy of relegation to League B. Of course all of this was forecast based on the assumption that the Three Lions trip to Seville would prove ultimately fruitless. Then the game kicked off.

In the most scintalliting half of football from an England team in recent memory, Spain were put to the sword by the ruthless counter-attacking of Southgate’s side. With much of the half played in front of the visitors’ penalty area, and Luis Enrique’s team pressing high up the pitch, three clinical surges forward left the Spanish defence looking drastically exposed.

To a man, England’s first half performance was exceptional. Jordan Pickford played the deep-lying architect, and it was his pinpoint pass under immense pressure that set England on their way for the opening goal, finished with aplomb by a Raheem Sterling that is apparently lacking confidence. The newly-established back four, including 21 year old pair Joe Gomez and Ben Chilwell, kept the Spanish attack at bay, allowing them to pass the ball around thirty yards from goal without presenting any immediate threat. An unfamiliar midfield trio of Ross Barkley, Harry Winks and Eric Dier provided protection, balance, and verve in equal measure. The front three of Sterling, Harry Kane and Marcus Rashford dovetailed exceptionally, and looked devastating each time they charged towards David De Gea’s goal. After a disappointing return from the World Cup, the first half at the Estadio Benito Villamarín offered a remind of why England fans should still be excited about the national team. An unthinkable place in the final four is now a feint possibility.

 

 

Shitters

NEDGER

 

Germany – Thirty years ago, a match between the Netherlands and Germany would be billed as two of Europe’s giants facing off in a grudge match for the ages. Long gone, though, are the talents of van Basten, Gullit, Klinsmann and Matthaus, and both sides now find themselves on a downward spiral. Ahead of the Euro 2020 qualifiers, Ronald Koeman’s Dutch side are hoping to avoid missing out on a third tournament in a row for the first time since 1986. Since reaching the semi-finals of the 2014 World Cup and the subsequent international retirements of Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder, Holland have struggled to marry together their emerging crop of talent along with the dying embers of Louis van Gaal’s bronze medal winners, leaving a mish-mash of players either too young or too old to compete on the biggest stage.

On Saturday, though, a vintage performance gave the Dutch their biggest win over their fiercest rivals in 41 meetings. It was the latest blow to a Germany side that have seemingly imploded since their disastrous World Cup, where defeats to Mexico and South Korea saw them exit the tournament at the group stage for the very first time. Since then, a toothless draw against France, and a narrow friendly win over Peru have hardly earned goodwill from Die Mannschaft’s supporters, as the wisdom behind renewing Joachim Löw’s contract ahead of this summer’s Russian failure is brought into stark focus.

While plenty of blame can be laid at the coach’s door – there were murmurs of discontent at Löw’s squad announcement for the World Cup, and his current experiment of playing Joshua Kimmich as a defensive midfielder has drawn criticism – too many of Germany’s star players are stuck in a rut of poor form. Jerome Boateng and, to a lesser extent, Mats Hummels have continued their run of incompetence from Russia, while Manuel Neuer’s long-held reputation as one of Europe’s best stoppers is becoming more questionable by the game. The good news Germany fans is that there’s a generation of sublime talent knocking on the door of the national team. The bad news is that Löw seems reluctant to play them. Should the unimaginable happen, and Germany are relegated to League B, it could be the end of Löw.

 

Iceland – One of most intriguing aspects of the Nations League format has been the introduction of relegation and promotion. It gives the smaller nations the opportunity to ‘level up’, slowly building their confidence against teams that are on their level or slightly above, with a view to improving the standard of football across the continent. At the other end of the spectrum, nations not equipped to challenge their group opponents will quickly get found out, and on Monday Iceland’s fate was sealed.

After an incredible three year spell for Strákarnir okkar, success finally appears to be catching up with them. Their historic qualification for Euro 2016 (and subsequent run to the quarter-finals) was then trumped by their appearance in Russia this summer, becoming the smallest nation to qualify for a World Cup finals. Over the last twelve months however, fortunes have faded for the boys in blue, and a 4-1 friendly win against Indonesia in January represents the only victory for Iceland since their final World Cup qualifier against Kosovo last October.

Their Nations League campaign got off to the worst possible start with a 6-0 gubbing at the hands of Switzerland, and it was Vladimir Petkovic’s side that delivered the final twist of the knife in Reykyavik, as Michael Lang’s winner confirmed Iceland as the first side to be relegated in the Nations League. Having spent so long playing above and beyond their level, dropping down to a league that includes fellow Nordics Denmark and Sweden is perhaps more befitting of the quality they possess. For Iceland, this is the end of the beginning.

 

The Other Home Nations – While England’s international break was saved by that storming showing in Seville, the rest of the home nations have been left with plenty to ponder after a largely unsuccessful weekend of football. Wales recommence their Nations League campaign away at Ireland tonight, and will fancy their chances against Martin O’Neill’s ailing team, but Ryan Giggs could’ve hoped for better preparation than the 4-1 footballing lesson dished out by Spain at the Principality Stadium last week.

For Northern Ireland, relegation to League C is looking likely after trips to Austria and Bosnia & Herzegovina brought a pair of narrow defeats. On Friday night in Vienna, Marko Arnautovic’s distinctly offside looking goal was the difference between the two sides, though the Green and Whites offered little going forward, as Michael O’Neill was shorn of the services of both first choice strikers Will Grigg and Kyle Lafferty late in the day. Playing a little more expansively on their trip to the Balkans, the clinical finishing of Edin Dzeko proved the difference between the two sides, with The Dragons now looking favourites for promotion to League A. Much like Iceland, Northern Ireland’s heroics of the past few years have left them a small fish in a big pond, and undoubtedly they’ll benefit from meeting the likes of Hungary and Albania when the Nations League resumes.

Then of course, there’s Scotland, who continue to live a Groundhog Day existence in international football. The uninspiring appointment of Alex McLeish looked to be paying dividends when Albania were swatted aside at Hampden Park in their opening Nations League game, but against a poor Israel side on Thursday, the Scots were made to look abysmal. Ahead against the run of play thanks to Charlie Mulgrew’s penalty, the hosts’ relentless attack eventually brought the scores level seven minutes after the break, through Maccabi Tel Aviv midfielder Dor Peretz. The senseless second yellow earned by John Souttar minutes later set up a backs-to-the-wall finish for Scotland, and  Kieran Tierney was the unfortunate fall-guy, flicking his foot out to divert a cross past Allan McGregor. The comprehensive friendly defeat to an experimental Portugal side three days later was further salt in the wound, but November’s double-header provides McLeish an opportunity to right the wrongs of a disastrous few days. If they can take four points from Albania and Israel, then promotion and that coveted play-off spot may inspire a little revisionism on Scotland’s new manager.

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