Nations League sentence 5/5 (4)

Nations League closed the curtain on the group phase. Enjoyed it? I did but the favorites surely didn’t.

As said at the beginning, playing competitive matches against equally strong opposition is surely better then playing friendly games against whom offers more. Even so only Portugal, host of the finals in June, as favorite earned the right to fight for the trophy.

Nations League

Fall of the favorites

League A consisted of top 12 sides on the continent divided in 4 groups of 3 participants. Except for Portugal in group 3 all other front-runners failed.

In group 1 perhaps the biggest surprise occurred. Freshly crowned world champions France was surpassed by the resurrecting Netherlands in most dramatic circumstances. Other heavy under-performer, Germany, allowed west neighbour to equalize in the last minute of the last group game thus granting Oranje’s place in the finals.

Germany

The Germans tried to save at least some dignity by winning the last game at home. However after a 2 goal lead and missing or misplaying several counter attacks was caught up late in the match.

And who scored? Appropriately captain and stand out member, Van Dijk! Central defender turned striker. Just for this occasion, when his team needed him most.

It’s hard to understand how France let itself come in such situation after a ruthless WC. Famed for pragmatic and result oriented style got severely beat at the Feijenoord Stadium. Beat and outperformed by a young and hungry Dutch side. Not really champions stuff!

Belgian black-out

In group 2 Belgium, bronze medal winner in the summer’s tournament, again disappointed. Switzerland and Iceland are honorable adversaries, without question, however talent and class were all in one team.

In the last group match heavy favorites had the privilege to qualify even with a minimal defeat. And to make things worst even had double lead in the 17th minute. But still managed to get themselves knocked out.

Perhaps the lead came too soon. Could be that technical superiority relaxed them too much. Surely complacency had a huge influence in the final result as rampant Swiss, led by Seferović, put 5 behind Curtois.

Belgium

Complete black-out after getting in front! In might be a secondary competition however a side targeting the greatest success can’t allow these nights to happen.

Portugal’s walk in the park

Portugal finished in front of rebuilding Italy and somehow inadequate Poland. Regarding Ronaldo’s absence in the competition a lot has been said. Did the reigning European champions win because of his absence or in spite of it?

He’s still a phenomenal player but apparently the national side learned how to cope without him. Even if competition wasn’t irresistible.

Italy

Italy’s making a complete overhaul after the ultimate shame of failing to qualify for the WC. Progress is there anyway still a long way to go.

Poland has some world-class players and exciting youngsters but in Nations League didn’t show everything they can do. The problem is a lack of top-quality midfielder.

Nations League essence?

For me group 4 is the very essence of the Nations League idea; 3 teams on a par fighting it to the very last minute. Everybody can win against everybody. Home and away!

England_ Kane

Last game had only 1 certain thing; Spain can’t be relegated to League B. All other possibilities were open and plausible. Just a goal away! And the venue was perfect; Wembley stadium in London. Replay of last WC’s semi-final.

Every goal scored changes everything. One moment Croatia is leading and in the finals, next moment Spain’s on top but in the end England wins it.

Croatia

Anyway, even if the eventual group winner has nothing to envy to Croatia and Spain, perhaps was a little surprise that The Three Lions won the group.

Especially after opening-day home defeat!

What next?

Portugal

Host Portugal, persistent Switzerland, somewhat lucky but nevertheless deserving Netherlands and talented England will lock horns to decide “Nation’s” best.

Semi-final draw will take place next month in Dublin. Naturally, semi-final winners will meet in the final.

Netherlands

Next Nations League edition will have a totally different look. A lot will change, most of all in League B and C, where 2 new teams per group will heavily influence the balance UEFA is striving for.

League A, B and C bottom seeded teams will be relegated and replaced by group B, C and D winners. I’m afraid that balanced and equal matches will be few and far between with every subsequent edition.

No favors

You noticed that medal winners from Russia, all three from Europe, couldn’t make it to the finals. Runner-up even got relegated!

France

Moreover, one of the finalists didn’t even make it to Russia at all!

That must mean something! If nothing else it means that in Europe best football is played and not even world champions are afforded any favors.

Nations League has brought us emotions, surprises and new heroes. Mission accomplished! At least this time.

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England fight back, Croatian harakiri 5/5 (1)

England won group 4 in league A of UEFA Nations League and qualified new competition’s for semi-finals. Other finalist is Portugal with a hard-fought draw in Italy last night.

Come-from-behind win against tired Croatia at Wembley earned England’s national team progression to next year’s finals.

Do or die

After a last-gasp victory against sloppy Spain on Thursday night, Croatia came to Wembley to fight for promotion. Or at least avoid relegation. How is that possible in a single match? Well, the new competition European governing body came up with offers all-in-one.

Group standing before the match had Spain up top with 6 points, England and Croatia leveled in second with 4.

England vs Croatia

Spaniards had already played all 4 games and their future participation in the competition depended on tonight’s result.

A goalless draw sends Spain in the final four and Croatia to league B. Draw with goals doesn’t influence the group winner but means relegation for The Three Lions.

Tonight’s winner qualifies for the final tournament meanwhile the loser goes down. Only thing sure before the match was that Spain can’t be relegated.

Bright England start

It was a little miracle that the match was still at 0-0 at half time.

Sterling and Kane had clear-cut chances within the first 10 minutes that simply cannot be wasted at this level. As if it wasn’t enough, each of them missed another opportunity just a few minutes later.

Another dangerous situation in front of the visiting goal was solved by Vrsaljko with a last-ditch tackle that prevented Rashford to find himself all alone in front of the keeper.

After another semi-cleared corner kick Chilwell fired cheekily from the edge of the area but Kalinić was up to it. It was 25th minute and the hosts already had opposition’s goalie working extra hours.

Croatian trouble

Croatia trouble

Already facing rampant England less than 72 hours after victorious but ultimately exhausting battle against Spain without Rakitič, Croatia’s hit by another blow. Vrsaljko had to be substituted in the 26th minute and young and inexperienced Milić took his place.

The Balkan side somehow restored balance in the middle of the park and threatened with a few dangerous situations. No limpid chances but a proof of life. Because they need a goal not to relegate. Even if they don’t win.

In the 40th minute another thrill went down visiting fans when goalkeeper missed a cross and the ball fell to Barkley’s right foot. The volley was powerful but missed the target. Big relief for Dalić’s men and another chance blew for Southgate’s troops.

England trouble

England trouble

Second half had a similar scenario. Fresher England in search of progression goal and fatigued Croatia hanging on and waiting for counter attack opportunity.

Some interesting situations spurned by the home side led to inevitable visitors lead. As it often happens, if you don’t score you’re going to pay for it eventually and Croatia duly took advantage of English wastefulness.

Kramarić received a pass deep into England’s area. 3 defenders closed him down and forced him away from goal but couldn’t get the ball off him. However in the end ex-Leicester City attacker managed to get a shot deflected past Pickford.

Visitors ahead and on their way to the final four! Still over 30 minutes left to play but Croatia got the all-important goal that puts them in a commanding position.

New game

The goal not only had Croatia qualified to the finals but also had England relegated to league B! Additionally, one goal doesn’t change that! England needs to win to avoid going a level down.

Croatia goal

Attacks intensify, Dele Alli replaces booked Barkley to add some weight and height in attack but it doesn’t help.

Chances hardly come by and Southgate decides to go all in with Lingard taking Delph’s place and young Sancho, next footballing big thing, replaces Rashford.

Before gambling comes to fruition one more scare needs to go by. Croatian counter-attack brings Brozović in a dangerous position however no shot on goal is fired. A situation visitor’s will live to regret.

Lingard to the rescue

Just 2 minutes after the blown opportunity England equalizes. Joe Gomez’s throw-in flew in the heart of the area and after a scramble arrives to Harry Kane. The England captain, one of the best nr. 9 in the world, was left all alone on the far post.

Kane squeezed the ball under the onrushing keeper and Lingard tap it in from point blank. 1:1! But this goal was for Spain. England still slide into league B due to worse goal-difference with Croatia and Spain wins the group.

England goal

World’s vice-champions reacted immediately and had a great chance after a corner. Vida out-jumped the English defence and heads on goal. Pickford is just short to get his hand on the ball but the providential Lingard is there to save the day.

After scoring the crucial equalizer, now he clears a certain goal from the goal-line. How about that as contribution as a substitute!

Chance missed – goal conceded

This match was a typical example of this unwritten rule. Both teams had been on the proverb’s painful end.

Lingard’s clearance would stand for nothing if England didn’t score one more time. Who would be a fitter hero than the captain?

85th minute, free kick for England on the left-hand side. Chilwell whips in a low cross which doesn’t find obstacles on its way to the far post. Harry Kane, completely unmarked some 6 meters from goal, slides in and sends the ball into the bottom corner to the delight of the 90.000 fans present at Wembley.

England 2_1

Well, 90.000 minus the 3.000 visiting supporters.

Croatian media ridiculed Spanish defence for leaving Jedvaj, right-back unknown to wider footballing public, alone to score 2 goals.

I wonder what will be said of their own defence after today’s performance.

After all the humiliation (Elche, anyone?), tight schedule (less than 72 hours between games) and personnel issues (no Rakitić, Vrsaljko, left-back,…) blowing everything so easily (best striker in the world left unmarked at set-piece, twice) has to be hard to swallow for Dalić and the whole nation.

Other finalists

Portugal somehow managed to keep a clean sheet in Milan last night and thus won the group 3 with a game to spare.

Italy, a side in transition and in search of itself, kept the European champions under check the whole match however couldn’t find a way past Rui Patricio. Mostly thanks to a toothless attack.

Last round match between Portugal and Poland won’t have any impact on final standings; the former will take part in the final four and the latter will be relegated to group B.

Petković happy

Somewhat surprise winner of group 2 is Switzerland! Before the last game in Swissporarena, Luzern, Belgium had a perfect score. Even a draw would see them win the group and progress to the finals. Moreover, within 17 minutes they were already 2 goals up thanks to Hazard. Not Chelsea superstar Eden, but his brother, Thorgan!

But it wasn’t enough! The Swiss turned the game around even before half time thanks to Rodriguez and double strike from Seferović.

Even this result would leave Belgium top of the standings. However, it just wasn’t meant to be. Nico Elvedi and Seferović again scored to put the game beyond doubt. Historical come-back for the small yet great country i hte middle of the Alp’s.   

Group 1 winner will be decided when already relegated Germany will face Holland. France is leading the group but if the resurrecting Dutch manage to remain unbeaten in the last game, they will progress due to better head-to-head record against world champions.

UEFA trophy

Scepticism surrounding UEFA Nations League after today’s constant over-turns and emotional roller-coaster must be brought to an end. When playing for a trophy, even if it’s a completely new one, always brings the best out of the teams. Who wouldn’t want to be the first in history to lift a cup?

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England and Italy new dawn or false dawn? No ratings yet.

England and Italy

New dawn for England and Italy?

Last results would suggest so! They should enjoy the moment but not get carried away too much. Ask Spain for additional information…

Croatian unfair draw

England more then anyone else enjoyed the international fixtures this time. In creepy silence of the Rujevica stadium in Rijeka against world vice-champions a draw is not a bad result. Or at least shouldn’t be!

Statistically, it was and even encounter with both teams managing total 6 shots on goal, small difference in ball possession, similar number of corners, offsides and all other measurable parameters. This is one of those games where statistics don’t tell the story! England twice hit the goal frame and Rashford had another 2 glorious chances to put his team in front. It’s hard to understand how a top-class talent missed those opportunities but in the end he did and Croatia got a golden point.

After shipping in half-a dozen of goals in Elche last month, this was a big step up in terms of results for them.

It must be noted that this Croatia side is miles away from the one that made the whole planet take notice of the small country in the heart of the Balkans in this summer’s WC. Even if only goalkeeper Subašič and tireless attacker Mandžukič of the usual starting eleven from Russia called it quits, the team looks slow, tired and disinterested. Southgate’s men missed a unique chance to take an important scalp.England and Italy

However they more then made up for that with a historical win in Spain!

Last month at Wembley, beside some hairy moments mainly nearing the end of the game, Spanish team had everything under control. Started badly but came from behind to ultimately seal a precious victory. The victory was followed by the dismantling of Croatia.

And after another convincing showing in Wales as warm up, the team was in high spirits and full of confidence.

Spanish gifts

Spain was never famed for its rock defensive line and duly makes all opponents work hard to get into attacking third. Usually high and constant pressing works just fine. England’s coaching staff apparently learned their lesson and instructed the team to attack the space behind the last four on the break with thru or over the top balls. Along with keeping the opponents far away from the goal with the Spanish weapon; pressing and winning the ball already in opposition’s half. See goal nr. 1 and 3 for evidence. England and Italy

But the second goal is the one that bothers me most from Spain’s perspective. Pickford sent a long ball right after catching it. Captain Kane, surrounded by opponents, controlled the ball, shrugged off timid challenge and then was allowed time and space to turn. Even if he was basically alone and had no support from his teammates, nobody was close enough to him to prevent him from facing the goal!

Once he turned and saw no obstacles, it wasn’t too hard for a player of his caliber to drill a ball past static defence and serve redemption-seeking Rashford a golden ball to double the lead.

Sergio Ramos, whom I admire a lot and consider one of the best in his position in the last decade, since there was nobody coming in Kane’s assistance, Nacho was covering his back and Sergio closing down, should not allow the English attacker any other option then to play the ball backwards!

If second goal can be assigned to a individual error or miss-judgement, first and third showed all the shortcomings of Spanish defensive phase.

System failure?

All goals came in similar way which usually points to systematic faults and that should worry Luis Enrique. And also complacency or lack of awareness should be addressed as England made a great number of individual errors which weren’t taken advantage of.

After the game the most frustrated man surely was De Gea; the whole evening he had no real work except to pick the ball out of the net 3 times. And that’s it! No other shots, crosses or actions of real danger for his goal. Nothing that would require any of his talent’s to be ready. England and Italy

Even if Southgate is the first manager since 2003 who takes home all points from Spain I can’t praise him too much. No matter what anybody else, first of all her Majesty’s media, says, when you allow opposition 23 attempts on goal, even if it is one of the most in-form teams in the world, your gain is largely due to others faults.

England suffered a draw in a match where they missed everything and won the match in which they scored everything. Meaning 2 undeserved results.

As said at the beginning; enjoy the win but don’t get carried away!

Italian rise?

On the other hand Italy got two results they absolutely deserved. Draw against Ukraine and win in Poland were both results that reflected the match proceedings. If the midweek friendly wasn’t taken seriously enough, as usually, the Nations League A relegation threatening confrontation with the Polish was taken very seriously. Right from the off! Azzurri’s strong start and crossbar hit by Jorginho in the very first minute was a clear sign of things to happen. They had the game in absolute control from start to finish. With a few black-outs in between taken care by Donnarumma. Just to remind Mancini that there is still a lot of work left to do. England and Italy

No matter how convincing the win was a large part is due to Poland’s limitation in midfield, defence and tactics. Italy managed to isolate Lewandowski and forcing him battle it out with Bonucci and Chiellini. It’s an arduous task for the whole attack let alone by yourself.

Italian media has been full with sensational titles describing the current national side as the most exciting ever. However Mancini is trying to keep the euphoria down. He’s surely aware that this can’t be a game that historical powerhouse should celebrate to much. But it can be something you can build on.

As said last time, I’m not a fan of Mancini the manager, but this game was prepared and carried out expertly. Credit where is due! Anyway, as in England’s case; enjoy the win but don’t get carried away.

England gained 2 undeserved results against deserving opposition meanwhile Italy got deserved results against undeserving opponents; it’s not a new dawn yet but with wins can’t be even a false one. England and Italy

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