Nations League: The Forgotten Tournament
Nations League 2020-21: The Tournament Everyone's Forgotten About
International football will finally return after a lengthy hiatus when Europe’s finest teams begin their respective Nations League campaigns this week. England have landed in a formidable group alongside Belgium, Denmark and Iceland. There are also some intriguing games for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to look forward to in the competition.
What Format Does the Nations League Follow?
All 55 UEFA member nations will take part in the Nations League. The tournament was first held in 2018-19, when Portugal beat the Netherlands in the final and England vanquished Switzerland to finish third. UEFA has ranked the teams based on their performances in that tournament, and then divided them into four leagues. England are in League A alongside heavyweights such as Portugal, the Netherlands, France, Spain and Germany. The overall level of quality continues to drop until you reach League D, which features Faroe Islands, Latvia, Andorra, Malta, Gibraltar, Liechtenstein and San Marino. The league phase will take place from September to November. The teams to finish top of the four groups in League A will qualify for the finals, which will be held next autumn. Relegation play-outs will be held in March 2022.
Can England Win Silverware?
England were installed as the favourites to win Euro 2020 this summer after firing in 37 goals in just eight qualifying games. However, the tournament was postponed to 202, and it will be interesting to see if the Three Lions are in such fine form when it finally kicks off. In the meantime, they will be able to pit their wits against extremely challenging opposition in the Nations League. If they make it through to the finals, they will have yet another opportunity to end 55 years of hurt by clinching silverware next September, should they fall short in the Euros.
Manager Gareth Southgate has picked a very strong squad for the upcoming Nations League games. It indicates that he plans to take the tournament seriously following England’s run to the semi-finals in 2019. He told reporters that he sees the Nations League as an opportunity to “put a smile on people’s faces” during a challenging year. More than 2.5 million people tuned into the semi-final against the Netherlands last year, and a large TV audience is expected this time around. Southgate also said he hopes to use it as an opportunity to “improve enough to go into the Euros in a really strong frame of mind”.
Competition for places in the England is fierce. Exciting youngsters like Phil Foden, Mason Greenwood and Ainsley Maitland-Niles have been handed their first call-ups as a reward for their club form, while Aston Villa captain Jack Grealish is in line for his first cap after Marcus Rashford and Harry Winks withdrew. They will put pressure on stars like Jadon Sancho, Raheem Sterling and Declan Rice as they vie for starting berths. Southgate is likely to tinker with his starting line-ups and conduct some tactical experiments, but overall he appears to be keen on winning the tournament. Belgium are a fantastic team, while Denmark and Iceland are very capable sides too, but Southgate’s exciting youngsters are among the favourites in the football odds after impressing at the 2018 World Cup and in the qualifiers for the Euros.
Which Other Nations Look Strong?
A new era gets underway for the Netherlands this week after manager Ronald Koeman left to take over at Barcelona. They are up against Italy, Bosnia & Herzegovina in their League A group. Reigning champions Portugal will be keen to successfully defend their crown. Cristiano Ronaldo boasts an impressive supporting cast, featuring Joao Felix, Bernardo Silva and Bruno Fernandes. They are up against world champions France, Sweden and Croatia. The French will be desperate to return to form after a difficult Euro 2020 qualifying campaign. The other League A group pits Switzerland against Spain, Ukraine and Germany. Spain are in fine form under Luis Enrique, while Germany should be emboldened after many of their stars won the Champions League with Bayern Munich.
Will Gareth Bale Lead Wales to Glory?
Bale’s fitness will be among the primary concerns for Welsh fans as they gear up to watch their heroes in action. The Welsh wizard has spent more time on the golf course than on the pitch for Real Madrid over the past year. He has fallen out of favour with manager Zinedine Zidane, but the club blocked a move to China and he is now content to see out his contract in the reserves.
Yet Bale remains a world-class player, one of the most talented forwards of his generation, and he loves playing for his country. Wales are up against Finland, Republic of Ireland and Bulgaria in their League B group. They cannot advance to the finals, but success would see them promoted to League A for the next Nations League. They will need Bale to fire on all cylinders after Aaron Ramsey and David Brooks both withdrew from the squad with injuries.
Can Scotland Benefit from Nations League Success?
The Nations League offers teams like Scotland a backdoor route into the 2022 World Cup, meaning the stakes are high. The 10 teams that win their World Cup qualifying groups will go to the tournament, and the 10 runners-up will be joined in a playoff by the two best performing Nations League group winners that failed to finish in the top two of their World Cup qualifying groups. It is therefore important to win your Nations League group, in case you fail to finish in the top two of your World Cup qualifying group. Scotland are up against Czech Republic, Slovakia and Israel in their group.
Can Northern Ireland Succeed in Tricky Group?
Northern Ireland’s results have been strong over the past few years. Their reward is a place in League B, where they have landed in a tricky group that also features Austria, Norway and Romania. Former Under-21 manager Ian Baraclough has taken the reins following Michael O’Neill’s departure. “We want to get off to a good start in the Nations League and win games to send us into the Euro play-off on the back of two good results and performances,” he said. They are up against high quality opposition, but Northern Ireland have been resolute at the back and creative in attack over the past few years, so it will be intriguing to see how they fare in the early stages of Baraclough’s reign.