UEFA Nations League - Winners and Losers
With the focus swiftly moving to club football, we couldn’t let slip the opportunity to reflect on a week of international football to remember.
Many were sceptical of the newly formed Nations League at first and few knew how the format worked. Yet, the tournament has helped provide competitive games packed full of drama and intrigue - you could go as far to say it has helped revitalize international football.
There are certainly some nations enjoying it more than others though. Offside reflects on the contrasting fortunes of six countries in particular.
On the Up
Since being accepted as a UEFA member in 2013, Gibraltar have been getting used to international football the hard way. A record of ten defeats from ten Euro 2016 qualifiers against the likes of Germany, Poland, Republic of Ireland and Scotland was matched when it came to participating in FIFA World Cup qualifying in a group containing Belgium, Greece and Bosnia.
But allowing teams such as Gibraltar to play teams of equal ability is one of the reasons the Nations League was invented and it’s fair to say they’ve grasped the opportunity with both hands.
Prior to their double header with Armenia and Liechtenstein in Group D4, the smallest UEFA member had lost 22 competitive games on the bounce, including the first two of this competition to Macedonia and Liechtenstein.
They’re officially on the board now though. After claiming their first ever points with a 1-0 victory away at Henrik Mkhitaryan’s Armenia, newly appointed coach Julio Ribas inspired his players to come from behind to win and secure back-to-back victories.
Quite a week for Gibraltar for whom this Nations League will be regarded as a huge success and a significant building block in their bid to climb the rankings, regardless of the outcome of their final two fixtures at home to Armenia and in Macedonia.
There are a handful of countries with 100% records across Leagues A-D but none have chalked up more victories than Finland.
Four games in and they’ve won every game, head coach Markku Kanerva leading his side to victories over Estonia (twice), Hungary and most notably, Greece. Perhaps more impressively, they’ve done so without conceding a single goal.
Avoiding defeat in one of their two remaining games away in Athens and Budapest in November will confirm Finland’s promotion from League C and serve as welcome recognition for an ever-improving side that has tasted defeat just once in their last 14 internationals overall.
Despite their World Cup heroics, England weren’t fancied to contribute much to a group also containing their World Cup nemesis, Croatia, and a newly energized Spain, especially having lost their opening match to the Spaniards at Wembley.
The prospect of relegation to the second tier, or League B, was thrown about prior to this round of games but as we’ve discovered this year, Southgate personifies calmness and isn’t one to be flustered.
And as he’s done time and again since becoming England manager, he proved the doubters wrong by coming away with four points from two tricky away games, with yet more youngsters given a chance to impress on the international stage.
Deemed unlucky to take only a point away from their eerie experience in Rijeka, the general consensus was that Spain would have too much for an England side that would not be able to cope with the fluidity of a team that had taken previously taken Croatia to the cleaners with a devastating attacking display.
Southgate and England hadn’t read the script though and instead it was they who were to wreak havoc in Seville. Deservedly three up by half time, joyous England fans hadn’t seen anything like this since Munich in 2001 and were quite rightly in dreamland.
As expected Spain came back at them strong but the youngest England starting lineup since 1959 showed maturity beyond their age to hold out for the win, made even more impressive considering it was the first victory England had registered in Spain in more than thirty years.
On their way down
Republic of Ireland
There was always the sense that the heavy loss the Republic of Ireland suffered to Denmark in the World Cup play offs last year was the right time to make way for a new regime. Yet, despite many calling for the pair to go, Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane signed contract extensions up until the end of qualification for Euro 2020.
But even they must now be thinking twice about their decision to carry on, especially with criticism of O’Neill’s coaching methods coming under scrutiny more and more. In terms of result he can have few complaints; his side have been nothing short of woeful in this competition so far.
From the moment they set out in this competition, Ireland have resembled a team lacking any commitment to the cause and are perhaps fortunate to have one point to their name, while their only goal was a mere consolation after shipping four in Wales. Barring a miracle, they will be relegated, a scenario that will crank up the pressure on the FAI to bring a fresh voice into the dressing room.
Another O’Neill isn't exactly in love with this competition either with Northern Ireland also not having the best of times so far.
They will rue a host of missed opportunities in their latest defeat against Bosnia but it was always going to be tough ask to get the better of both Bosnia and Austria in a tough opening group.
Having lost all three games played, anything other than a victory at home to Austria in their final game will see them relegated to League C, a far cry from the achievements of Michael O’Neill and Northern Ireland in recent years.
Germany could always be relied upon to be there or thereabouts come the end of a tournament and the handing out of the medals. Well, not this Germany team.
Having crashed out of the World Cup after finishing bottom of their World Cup group, Joachim Löw is facing up to the very real prospect of adding another black mark to his CV in the shape of relegation from Europe’s elite tier of nations.
A goalless draw at home to the World Champions wasn’t the worst start. But a distinctly average performance and heavy 3-0 loss against the Netherlands, was followed up with surrendering a goal advantage to eventually go down to France in the reverse fixture, their fourth loss in seven.
Die Mannschaft find themselves in one rather large hole and like many others, could’ve done without this competition so soon after a summer to forget in Russia. No one will be thinking this more than Joachim Löw whose job will certainly be on the line should Germany be left propping up the rest once again come the final round of games.