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