Despite its best efforts, international football still faces indifference outside of major tournaments, with the third break of season met with the usual sighs, tuts and eyerolls from certain quarters. Fortunately for UEFA, Theresa May was happy to step in this week and release details of her final withdrawal deal from the EU to distract the meatheads and contrarians from moaning about the Nations League. While a cast of notable and not-so-notable names resigned from the cabinet, Wayne Rooney was busy being commemorated for his dedication to underachievement, making a cameo appearance against the United States to pick up his 120th and final England cap.
In the world of competitive (with a little ‘c’) football, the Nations League group stage reached its denouement, with the final group games in all four divisions taking place this weekend. With promotion, relegation, playoffs and places in the final four up for grabs, we would at least get some answers on Europe, even if they didn’t satisfy haunted pencil Jacob Rees-Mogg, or over-inflated prophylactic Boris Johnson. Here are the Nations League Hitters & Shitters.
Netherlands – Revenge is a dish best served 44 years later. The Netherlands came into the inaugural Nations League campaign looking like a shoo-in for relegation to League B after failing to qualify for the last two major tournaments and looking a shadow of the side that reached the World Cup semi-final in 2014. The appointment of Ronald Koeman in February has given the team a boost, however, and since defeat to England in the former Everton boss’ first game, the Dutch have only lost once, to world champions France.
In the last set of fixtures, Oranje posted one of the most eye-catching results of the tournament so far as Germany, suffering their own crisis of confidence, were dismantled in Amsterdam. Tensions between the two nations have always run high, a hangover from the Second World War that has grown and mutated over the course of some controversial and bad-tempered meetings down the years. Many Dutch fans are yet to truly get over the defeat in the 1974 World Cup final, despite outplaying West Germany on their way to Euro 88 victory. Given their form over the last few years, that victory in September – their first competitive win over the old enemy since 1992 – came as some surprise.
All of which meant that, should they overcome France on Friday, they would condemn Joachim Low’s team to a humiliating relegation, and keep their hopes of a place in the final four alive. The Dutch continued with a centre-back pairing emerging as one of the best in Europe, as Virgil Van Dijk and Matthijs De Ligt posted another assured performance, keeping Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann quiet and posting their second successive Nations League clean sheet. Up front, the rebirth of Ryan Babel continued to reap rewards, while in-form Lyon forward Memphis Depay gobbled up the chance to seal the win with a stoppage time penalty following Gini Wijnaldum’s first half goal.
Condemning their old foes to relegation was sweet enough, but things would get even better for Koeman and co. in their final fixture. On a damp night in Gelsenkirchen, it looked as though Low’s side might finally claw back a little dignity from their shambolic Nations League campaign, racing into a two goal lead in the opening twenty minutes courtesy of Thomas Muller and Leroy Sane. Indeed, Germany looked a far better imitation of the side that stood on top of the world four years ago than they had in Russia, subjecting Jasper Cillessen’s goal to an onslaught in the first half.
With the game seemingly petering out to a disappointing defeat for the Dutch, Quincy Promes reignited their hopes of topping the group with five minutes to go. Germany, looking decidedly shaky, then failed to notice the 6’3” figure of Virgil van Dijk careering into the penalty area to meet Tonny Vilhena’s cross with the kind of volley that would make Marco van Basten proud. The wild celebrations that followed gave some idea of how the Netherlands view this competition. Not an opportunistic cash-grab by UEFA, but a chance for rehabilitation.
Gareth Southgate – Revenge is a dish best served at home. Just over four months ago, Gareth Southgate and his team were out-thought and outfought in the Luzhniki Stadium, as Croatia took advantage of England’s obvious weaknesses and capitalised on a lack of big game nous to book their place in the World Cup final. Since returning from Russia, Zlatko Dalic and his team looked to be suffering a silver tinted hangover, being totally outplayed in their opening Nations League fixture as Spain dished out a 6-0 spanking, before a goalless draw at home to England made the spectre of relegation a very distinct possibility. In the return match with Spain, another in a long line of thrilling Nations League ties, Tin Jedvaj scored his first two goals in international football to keep Croatia’s hopes of a final four place alive, setting up a winner takes all match with England on Sunday.
After sixty minutes at Wembley, Southgate must have been suffering a touch of deju vu. The first half, as was the case in Moscow, had been dominated by England, with chance after chance being spurned by a misfiring front three that had been so electric in Seville a month ago. For every positive in that victory over Spain, a negative emerged in the group decider. Ben Chilwell’s set-piece delivery was found wanting too often; Eric Dier produced a performance for nominative determinants everywhere; the marauding Harry Maguire was badly missed in a backline more comfortable passing from side to side. With relegation on the horizon, and with it the likelihood of all the momentum the national team has built over the past 12 months taking a serious hit, Southgate did what he was unable to do in Russia, changing the course of the game from the bench.
While Dele Alli’s introduction for Ross Barkley did little to effect the result, bar saving the overenthusiastic scouser from a nailed-on dismissal, the arrival of Jesse Lingard and Jadon Sancho won England the game. With Lingard buzzing around behind the front three, and Sancho injecting electricity into the Wembley atmosphere every time he received the ball, Croatia began to look nervy. Ironically it was a poor corner from Sancho that led to the first goal, with his cross being headed out for a throw by Croatia’s man on the post. Joe Gomez’s long, flat throw-in, straight from the Tony Pulis playbook, caused confusion in the visitors penalty area, and Harry Kane’s toe-poke towards goal left Lingard the simple job of tapping in for the equaliser. Game on.
The winner, again from a set-piece, was as scruffy as they come. Chilwell’s curled free-kick somehow found its way to the far side of the six yard box, and Kane’s toe once again made the difference, poking the ball in the bottom corner and sending England’s players into raptures. A meaningless friendly this wasn’t. The scenes of jubilation at the final whistle gave an idea of how much this result meant to that group of players, who’ve tasted hope and disappointment in England’s Year Zero. They’ll be at the UEFA Nations League finals next summer, but perhaps the bigger prize is that, back home, a nation will be watching and cheering them on. That’s the Gareth Southgate effect.
Yura Movsisyan – Revenge is a dish best served in hatfuls. Last month Armenia suffered the indignity of becoming Gibraltar’s first international scalp, as the team from the rock executed the textbook smash and grab in Yerevan. In the return fixture, Armen Gyulbudaghyants and his players weren’t prepared to suffer a repeat, and one man in particular made it his mission to settle the scores. The hosts did manage to take the lead at the Victoria Stadium through Tjay De Barr, but Yura Movsisyan, who plies in trade in the MLS with Chicago Fire, soon set about tearing Gibraltar apart. Having scored just once for the national team in the last five years, Movsisyan added four more to his international tally, as Gibraltar were blown away by Armenia’s attacking tour de force. Despite going in level at the break, three goals in six minutes from the 31 year old striker ended the game as a contest, and though Adam Priestly managed to pull one back late on, Armenia still ran out 6-2 winners.
Roberto Martinez – One World Cup bronze medal does not an international manager make, particularly when that manager is Roberto Martinez. The Spaniard’s critics were supposedly made to eat their words in the summer, as a team including Thibaut Courtois, Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne managed to finish third behind Dejan Lovren’s rabble. Clean sheets against England’s B team (twice) and a bunch of Panamanian street fighters had supposedly quelled suggestions that Martinez was unable to set a team up to defend, while the concession of four goals against Tunisia and Japan was completely ignored.
Regardless of how much importance Martinez or Belgium’s players placed on the Nations League, it did at least provide the opportunity to sustain the momentum from their best World Cup showing since 1986, and having won their first three games, it looked as though a place at next summer’s finals was in the bag. Indeed, when Thorgan Hazard netted his second of the night in just the 17th minute of the group decider against Switzerland, there’d have been more chance of Martinez resisting tapping his toes to Jason Derulo’s latest pop banger than Belgium failing to top the group.
But this is Roberto ‘defeat from the jaws of victory’ Martinez we’re talking about, and from the moment Ricardo Rodriguez pulled a goal back in the 26th minute from the penalty spot, the Red Devils’ defence looked about as resistant as a poorly stitched syrup in a forest wildfire. By half-time Belgium’s lead had evaporated, with Football Manager 2014’s Haris Seferovic scoring twice. Fortunately, Martinez’s side still held top spot thanks to their two away goals, and all they had to do was keep the Swiss at bay for forty-five minutes. They lasted seventeen, as Xherdan Shaqiri teed up Nico Elvedi to send Switzerland top, before Seferovic completed his hat-trick late on.
Minor tournament or not, this was the first time Belgium have conceded five in a match since defeat to Spain in 2009 – yes, that Spain. Doubtless Martinez will be judged on the serious business of Euros qualifying and the 2020 tournament, but that leaky defence continues to pose serious questions.
Northern Ireland – It’s easy to forget that Northern Ireland not only reached the last sixteen of Euro 2016, but were within a dodgy penalty decision of making the World Cup, losing out to Switzerland over two legs. Since that disappointing night in Basel, Michael O’Neill’s side have won just twice in their last nine games – in friendlies against South Korea and Israel – and joined San Marino as one of just two sides that failed to register a point across their four Nations League games.
In fairness, the Green and Whites were drawn in a tough group, with Bosnia & Herzegovina flying through the campaign thanks largely to the goals of Edin Dzeko, and Marko Arnuatovic taking a busman’s holiday to help Austria avoid relegation. Much like their southern neighbours, Northern Ireland find themselves devoid of any real up and coming talent, instead relying on the likes of 38 year old Gareth McAuley and 33 year old Steven Davis to provide moments of quality. Will Grigg, with just two goals in thirteen appearances, is yet to replicate his form for Wigan Athletic, while O’Neill is forced to look towards the lower reaches of the Scottish Premiership to fill his squad.
Northern Ireland reached the last European Championships on the foundation of a strong team bond and tireless work ethic. With the stars of that campaign quickly fading, and no viable replacements hovering into view, the chances of them making it in 2020 seem slim.
Luxembourg – More than anything else, the UEFA Nations League has been a boon for the smaller nations. Gibraltar won their first competitive match (then followed up with a second), Kosovo are on the brink of securing a Euros playoff place, while Finland earned the chance to play Germany in the next edition of the tournament. Had things gone a little differently, Luxembourg might have added their name to that list, having raced to the top of League D Group 2 with crushing wins over Moldova and San Marino. Even after losing to Belarus they headed into the final round of fixtures with their fate in their own hands, on the brink of their own slice of history.
Sadly, it wasn’t to be. Belarus, earmarked early on as favourites for promotion, squeaked past Luc Holtz’s side in Minsk thanks to Anton Saroka’s first half goal to take top spot, and with a trip to whipping boys San Marino on the final matchday, the Belorussians were never likely to relinquish that place. Holtz will take plenty of heart from a positive campaign that saw his team reach a national record 82nd in the FIFA rankings, and there’s a sense that there’s plenty more to come from a young Luxembourg team. Nevertheless, it feels like a golden opportunity has been passed up by missing those playoffs.