Inaugural Nations League preview: Who wants to be friendly?
UEFA’s brand new international competition kicks off this week. The Nations League was formed for two purposes.
- To replace meaningless friendlies that interrupt league schedules with competitive matches.
- To give smaller nations with fewer resources a better opportunity to reach a major tournament.
Club executives and fans alike abhor friendlies. Supporters’ money fills club coffers. Teams use those funds to sign and pay players. National federations with no financial stake can then borrow those players, frequently return them in damaged condition and for what? A friendly does nothing but line the federation’s pockets. It’s one thing when a country is attempting to qualify for the Euros or World Cup, although even then matches against minnows like the Faroe Islands and Kosovo hold no entertainment value while still risking top players’ health.
UEFA decided to kill two birds with one stone while giving clubs and fans a reason to tolerate international football’s intrusion on their orderly league business. The Nations League divides the confederation’s 55 member nations into four ‘leagues’ as follows:
- League A, the top 12 countries according to UEFA’s coefficient
- League B, the next 12 countries
- League C, the next 15 countries
- League D, the 16 lowest-ranked countries
Rather than the balanced seeding that you’d find in the Open Championship, grouping teams like-for-like in terms of strength creates a league pyramid. Each league is divided into four groups of either three or four teams that play a home-and-away double round-robin. The four group winners in each tier then playoff. The four league champions each earn a berth in the 2020 Euros. Promotion and relegation also factor into the competition.
The traditional UEFA qualifiers still exist but only produce 20 entrants into Euro2020. Thus minnows receive an opportunity they’d never have otherwise while top teams can take two bites from the qualifying apple.
If you’re up to speed, here’s a look at each group in all four leagues.
Participants: France, Germany, Netherlands
France are the reigning World Cup champions, Germany the deposed. The Dutch failed to qualify for Russia after finishing in the final four in Brazil and runners-up in South Africa. Can there be a more attractive group from a branding perspective?
Les Bleus coach Didier Deschamps embraced le mouvement de jeunesse to great effect. Paul Pogba proved he can back his flamboyance with substantive play. Kylian Mbappe showed he'd take over a match even if Lionel Messi was on the pitch.
Joachim Low, meanwhile, stuck with his veterans to the point he left Leroy Sane at home. To be fair, Pep Guardiola has subsequently criticised the young German's attitude, benching him. There were no problems at the Etihad before low snubbed the prolific Sane, however. The manager's apology for the World Cup debacle didn't ring true, either. He used it to throw Mesut Ozil under the bus, deny charges of racism within the squad the player never made.
Ronald Koeman is in charge of l'Oranje these days. The former Southampton and Everton boss has little choice but to develop young talent. The cream of the 2010-14 crop has soured with age. The players in their prime, notably Memphis Depay and Bas Dost, aren't at the same level. Virgil van Dijk and Jasper Cillesson are the rare exceptions. Defence is where Koeman's squad offers the most promise. In this group, that isn't enough.
This is France's group to lose.
Participants: Belgium, Iceland, Switzerland
Three World Cup sides grace Group 2. Each is a rising UEFA star at the moment, as well.
Belgium has risen the highest, finishing third in Russia after Roberto Martinez infused the chemistry into the side Marc Wilmots could not. The last-minute comeback against Japan to win from 2-0 down was among the tournament's best performances.
Iceland are the least populous country to play in a World Cup. Three hundred thousand strong, they are the Huddersfield proving they belong in the Nations League top flight. It's an epic tale but how long they can stay is another story.
Switzerland embraced a more vanilla strain of diversity than France at Russia2018 but it was a multi-ethnic squad nevertheless. Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka's symbolic gestures supporting Kosovo led Serbian coach Mladen Krstajic to suggest the German match official should face a war crimes tribunal. So much for being neutral.
FIFA says we shouldn't mix politics with sport, but the Swiss and Icelanders might want to consider a coalition to form a group majority. Neither stands much chance alone against Eden Hazard and co.
Participants: Italy, Poland, Portugal
Do you want the good news or bad first? The good news is two of Europe's most dangerous strikers will feature in Group 3. The bad news [for the Azzurri] is Cristiano Ronaldo's move to Juventus doesn't mean he'll also suit up for Italy. Regardless, this is a finely balanced trio. Picking a winner isn't easy.
Roberto Mancini has taken the Azzurri reins. The Inter and Manchester City coaching legend doesn't have the big gun up front like his counterparts. He doesn't have the big stopper at the back anymore, either, unless Gigi Buffon decides to forego retirement again. Gianluigi Donnarumma and Mattia Perin are competing to fill those big gloves. The defence in front of either will have the familiar Juve cast. Jorginho auditions to be the new Pirlo in midfield. Up front, Lorenzo Insigne and Ciro Immobile must provide the goals.
For the past two seasons, Robert Lewandowski has thrown his Bayern teammates under the bus then decided there were no better options. Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery et al took it well. Now, it's Poland's turn to prove they're not thin-skinned. They must be. In this case, there are no other options, although Jakub Błaszczykowski, Grzegorz Krychowiak, Lukasz Piszczek and company may wish there were.
Portugal should be the early favourites in the group. Ronaldo hasn't broken his Italian duck as yet but Fernando Santos has several young talents coming up to ease the legend into the rocking chair on the aft deck of his superyacht. William Carvalho and Bernardo Silva could be a dynamic midfield tandem and the talent branches out from there. It must still come together, however.
Participants: Croatia, England, Spain
Hoo, boy. Two semifinalists from Russia and one country that might have been there, too, had they not sacked the manager two days before the competition began. This seeding thing makes for some interesting groups. Who knew?
Captaining his side to a World Cup final appears to be enough to keep Luka Modric out of prison, much like winning gold at the Asian games kept Son Heung-min out of the army. Modric was indicted for perjury after allegedly lying about his former coach, who was the prosecution's main target. The skinny blonde midfield magician is back in Madrid, however, weaving his magic for the man the Spanish federation cut loose, Julen Lopetegui. Ivan Rakitic, never in trouble has returned to Barcelona, where he is pulling strings against hopeless minnows like Huesca since he can't do it on the international stage anymore. Impact sub Mateo Kovacic is doing his thing at Chelsea. This isn't a group for England to dominate.
Gareth Southgate's side thrilled the nation by reaching the World Cup semifinals. Now, it's time to demonstrate they can win against; top sides consistently. For all the accomplishments in Russia, the Three Lions boss didn't settle on a regular starting group and were too cautious against Belgium and Croatia, the best teams they faced. It's too soon to expect improvement from the young side in this window.
What to say about Spain? Despite Croatia's accomplishments, La Roja are the most talented side in this trio. Any nation that can choose from the best Real Madrid and Barcelona have to offer while filling the corners with a few Atletico stalwarts is going to claim top pedigree. Looks aren't enough, though. The work must be completed on the pitch. Luis Enrique is now the manager. Spain should display more purpose. We'll find out when they face England on Saturday.
Participants: Czech Republic, Slovakia, Ukraine
League A contains the dozen nations most likely to win the Euros. League B houses a few dark horses and potential banana peels. No team in Group 1 featured in the World Cup. The prime appeal here is local. All three countries are former Soviet satellites, with the Czechs and Slovaks divorced compatriots. Every match is an international derby.
The Czechs are a largely anonymous side. Championship fans know Matej Vydra, the division's top scorer. Petr Cech retired from international duty. Manager Karol Jarolim will field a technically sound albeit unspectacular squad who will rely on each other to find success.
Slovakia boasts a few more familiar faces. Marek Hamsik  and captain Martin Skrtel  are getting up there, however. Vladimir Weiss is in his prime but, now plying his trade with Al-Gharafa in the Qatar Stars League, hasn't lived up to his scoring potential. Inter defender Milan Skriniar is the face of the team's youth movement.
West Ham's Andriy Yarmolenko fronts Andriy Shevchenko's squad. Struggling for form at the moment, the winger/striker must come good for a national side that continues to ignore the Russian occupation and political unrest within the country to provide fans with a modicum of hope.
Any of the three could win promotion to League A and a booking for Euro2020, the Czech Republic with its solidity, Slovakia with its flashy talent, and the Ukraine with its steel. Personally, I want to root for the underdog Ukranians but my gut tells me Slovakia is most likely to find a way through.
Participants: Russia, Sweden, Turkey
Russia exploited its home advantage well at the World Cup, sticking around long enough to upset Spain. Sweden stuck around, too, but couldn't pull the same trick on England. Turkey didn't qualify for Russia18. The quickest remedy would be to add Mesut Ozil to the squad. Turkish president Recep Erdogan may have his solicitors working on that as we speak.
Russia began the World Cup as the lowest-ranked participant, there on host privileges. There'll be no free ticket for the Euros. The Sbornya must earn their way into the competition. Igor Akinfeev's presence in goal will help but Sergei Ignashevich, who retired after the World Cup, will be missed. Aleks Golovin, Denis Cheryshev and Artem Dzyuba will create chances and score goals but can a suspect defence keep them out?
Sweden reaped rewards for working exceptionally hard at the World Cup. Victor Lindelof was far more confident and effective than he's been for Manchester United. Robin Olsen replaced Alisson Becker at Roma, an opportunity to raise his game. Andreas Granqvist, Seb Larsson and Emil Forsberg complete the spine in Janne Andersson's squad. They have enough to win the group but maybe not to qualify for the Euros in this competition.
Arda Turan, Cenk Tosun, Hakan Calhanoglu, Burak Yilmaz, Nuri Sahin, Cengiz Under. This squad may qualify as a Turkish golden generation. On paper, they have the talent to boss Group 2 but Turkey's history is largely failing to reach its potential. Opening the Super Lig to foreign talent helps the current generation improve but limits opportunities for the next. It could be now or never for the Crescent-Stars.
Participants: Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Northern Ireland
If there's a theme in Group 3, it's so close yet so far. Austria and Bosnia especially have pushed against the edges of major tournament qualification in recent years. Austria and Northern Ireland made Euro16, Bosnia the 2014 World Cup. None sustained their momentum in UEFA qualifying for Russia.
Franco Foda has the talent available to steer Austria to the Euros. Aleksandar Dragovic is a strong defender. David Alaba and Marko Arnautovic are world-class on their day. The problem is those days aren't regularly scheduled. Die Burschen must be more consistent to crack UEFA's elite.
Bosnia has talent, too. Edin Dzeko is dangerous in the box, Miralem Pjanic a wonderful playmaker and Sead Kolasinac filled with promise, but Robert Prosinecki struggles to draw consistent performances from his group, as well. It doesn't help that goalkeeper Asmir Begovic's injury rules him out in this window. Dzeko is 32. Euro2020 represents his last hurrah.
Michael O'Neill has Northern Ireland punching above their weight. Age is catching up to his squad, though. Ten are at least 30, including four of his centre-backs, with Craig Cathcart 29. Can this group keep up with the pace younger squads will throw at them? Will Grigg enjoyed his moment in the sun for Wigan last term but may find himself isolated as his teammates are constantly pinned back.
Participants: Denmark, Republic of Ireland, Wales
Ireland and Wales faced off in the final round of UEFA World Cup qualifying in October 2017. A playoff spot was on the line. Ireland won through James McLean but neither side made it to Russia in the end. This time, they'll face off with Euro 2020 the eventual target. Denmark made it to Russia. Will they bar the Home Nations' way again?
Any side with Christian Eriksen pulling the strings and Kasper Schmeichel in goal has a chance to go far. The problem is they won't be in the squad to start the Nations League. Nor will any of the World Cup players or their manager. The DBU is attempting to force the players to accept an imaging rights agreement that conflicts with their lucrative personal agreements. The players offered to play this window under the old agreement. The DBU refused, electing to appoint an interim boss who would coach lower-league players to avoid a four-year UEFA ban after already cancelling games involving the women's team.
Meanwhile, Ireland is another squad whose age is beginning to tell. Although Burnley midfielder Jeff Hendrick and Brighton defender Shane Duffy are just 26, several players have passed or are nearing their 30th birthday. Captain Seamus Coleman is 29. Martin O'Neill's most dangerous striker, Jon Walters is 34. McLean, 29, misses Thursday's rematch with Wales courtesy a wrist injury.
Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey continue to be the players for whom the squad works. new boss Ryan Giggs isn't going to mess with a good thing. His initial experience with the team proved a mixed bag. The Dragons breathed fire on the hosts in the China Cup, scoring a half-dozen goals unanswered but Edinson Cavani's goal doused Giggsy's hopes for a quick trophy in the final.
If the Danish federation prolongs the fight with its players and Irelands continue to grow old, Group 4 will look increasingly like Wales' first step towards Euro2020.
Participants: Albania, Israel, Scotland
League C begins to plumb UEFA's depth. Although one or two countries stand a chance of sneaking in through regular qualifying, the Nations League is the sole hope for a Euro berth for most teams in the third tier. That includes all three teams in this group.
Albania and Israel finished a distant third and fourth respectively to Spain and Italy in UEFA World Cup qualifying's Group G. Albania's most notable player is Taulant Xhaka, a defensive midfielder for Basel best known as Arsenal star Granit Xhaka's brother. The Israelis no longer boast a player with Yossi Benayoun's quality.
Alex McLeish is treating the competition as an opportunity to test younger players. Names like Scott McTominay and Kieran Tierney lead the youthful charge while Robert Snodgrass and Sporting Kansas City's Johnny Russell provide experience in attack. James Naismith is a late call-up due to Oli McBurnie's injury. If McLeish strikes the right blend, the group is there for the taking.
Participants: Estonia, Finland, Greece, Hungary
Hungary's addition ruins the 'Blue Man Group' theme. Along with Greece, the Magyars are favourites in the first Nations League quartet. In a World Cup qualifying group. When you rule out Portugal and Switzerland, who claimed 54 of the 90 points on offer in UEFA Group B, Hungary finished a dominant third. RB Leipzig keeper Peter Gulasci is the familiar name in an anonymous but enterprising squad.
Greece hold a slight edge in quality, however, and should take the group. Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Kosta Manolas anchor a firm defence while Portuguese-born Copenhagen midfielder Zeca pulls the strings. Goals are always the difficulty for the Greeks but they've built a reputation for wearing opponents down.
Finland and Estonia, the latter captained by former Liverpool defender Ragnar Klavan, will struggle to make any headway.
Participants: Bulgaria, Cyprus, Norway, Slovenia
Bulgaria is far removed from their glory days as World Cup participants powered by Georghe Hagi. Dimitar Berbatov is retired from international duty, as well, although he is still scoring wonder goals in India. Cyprus hasn't the same legacy to remember with fondness but continue to soldier on hoping for that one moment to which their fans will always point.
The teams to watch in Group 3 are Norway and Slovenia. The Balkan side are dangerous with Vitesse star Tim Matavs leading the line. Norway has its own Vitesse player in teenager Martin Odegaard, on loan from Real Madrid. Bournemouth's Joshua King also features for the Scandinavians and any side managed by Lars Lagerback can be relied upon to play honest football.
Participants: Lithuania, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia
If the Nations League is intended to pit countries of comparable strength against one another, what is Serbia doing in League C? The World Cup participants feature a star-studded side including Aleksandar Kolarov, Nemanja Matic, Dusan Tadic, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, and Aleksandar Mitrovic. Even though manager Mladen Krstajic is fond of casting wild aspersions, the Serbs can blame no one but themselves if they cannot win this group then go on to secure a Euro2020 place in the playoff.
Montenegro might offer some resistance. Atletico Madrid centre-back Stefan Savic anchors the defence but Monaco striker Stevan Jovetic is ruled out with a calf injury. Nottingham Forest's 6'8" keeper, Costel Pantilimon will have to make himself even bigger to give Romania a chance. Lithuania just doesn't have the horses.
Participants: Andorra, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Latvia
League D stands for 'Don't belong anywhere a major tournament' but UEFA believes the experience will be good for the minnows, so here we are. One from the final 16 nations listed here will earn a place in the finals.
Latvia is the only country in League D to have participated at that level in the past. In Group 1, it boasts the most wins  and second most goals  in the last UEFA qualifying cycle. The Latvians finished above Andorra in Group B, the tiny principality being the only other team of the four to claim a victory. Georgia eked out five draws while scoring eight goals to finish second-bottom in Group D. Kazakhstan's three draws and six goals couldn't lift them from Group E's cellar.
Results suggest Latvia should be the group favourites but Georgia's roster is sprinkled across Europe and MLS with several signed to decent teams, including Lokomotiv, Shakhtar, Krasnodar and Gent. While the other three squads should be more familiar with their teammates, the Georgians have tested themselves against stronger competition. They could be the wild card.
Participants: Belarus, Luxembourg, Moldova, San Marino
It's probably safe to say the Nations League won't put San Marino into the Euros. In World Cup qualifying, the tiny principality surrounded by Italy managed two goals but conceded 51. Only Gibraltar, who shipped 47, were that inept. Moldova eked out two draws but Luxembourg and Belarus each garnered a victory while in the same group. Luxembourg took four points from their tie in World Cup qualifying but it was the other way around for Euro14. Expect those two to fight for Group 2 honours here.
Participants: Azerbaijan, Faroe Islands, Kosovo, Malta
With teams in the North Atlantic, Mediterranean, Balkans and Caspian Sea, this may be the most far-flung group in the Nations League. It's an onerous challenge for the four small countries. Azerbaijan and the Faroe Islands have enjoyed the most success recently. They should battle for the top spot. The climate changes in their tie ought to be interesting. Malta will struggle. Kosovo, a new UEFA member, must look at the group as a learning experience.
Participants: Armenia, Macedonia, Gibraltar, Liechtenstein
With Liechtenstein and Gibraltar claiming no points in UEFA World Cup qualifying, the battle in this final group is between FYR Macedonia and Armenia. Henrikh Mkhitaryan is irrefutably the best player in League D but will his class be enough to lift Armenia past Goran Pandev's Macedonians? The Genoa forward and his countrymen fared better than Mkhitaryan and his in the last qualifying cycle, going so far as to post a break-even record in goals scored and conceded. One from the two seems most likely to power their side to Euro 2020.
Remember, beyond the four league champions each earning a place in Euro2020, there are promotion and relegation considerations. Here's how it works:
League A: The victor in the playoff between group winners is crowned UEFA Nations League Champion and guaranteed a berth in Euro2020. The four teams who finish bottom in their group drop to...
League B: The victor in the playoff between group winners is guaranteed a berth in Euro2020. The four teams who finish bottom in their group drop to...
League C: The victor in the playoff between group winners is guaranteed a berth in Euro2020 but the relegation picture is different with 15 teams. The three nations who finish fourth and the worst third-place country drop to...
League D: The victor in the playoff between group winners is guaranteed a berth in Euro2020. The four teams who finish bottom in this, the bottom group, must move to a different continent. [Just kidding]
Now that you know the layout, enjoy the Nations League.