Nations League: Is it a major trophy if England win?
Background photo: Cedric23170, CC BY-SA 4.0
As Susanna Hoffs would sing, it was a Manic Monday in football terms. The day began like too many Mondays when Southampton sacked manager Mark Hughes. It ended on a sweeter note when England drew the Netherlands in the UEFA Nations League draw. The two meet on Thursday 6 June in Guimaraes, Portugal. The host nation is involved. They play Switzerland in Porto a day earlier, leaving the winner between the Three Lions and l'Oranje a day less to prepare for the final in Estadio do Dragao on Sunday the ninth.
The Dragons' Den will be rocking should Cristiano Ronaldo, Bernardo Silva and company make it to the final. Victory represents a chance for the former Manchester United and Real Madrid legend to go two up on Lionel Messi in the major trophy department for their respective national teams. That is if we're willing to call the Nations League a major tournament.
It seems like a breeze of a tournament because the groups are smaller but the winner plays one less match [six] than they would in the World Cup or the newly formatted European Championship.
Strangely, it's shorter but also much longer, with the group stages played out in late summer and autumn and the finals eight months later. The intensity doesn't build in the same manner it would if the tournament were held over three or four weeks.
Nevertheless, the groups are not seeded. To reach the semifinal round England, Portugal, Switzerland and the Netherlands faced only the best European teams. England knocked off World Cup nemesis Croatia and Spain to qualify. The Netherlands topped France and Germany, no mean feat for a side who missed the past two major tournaments. Switzerland and Portugal enjoyed slightly easier fixtures against Belgium and Iceland, Italy and Poland respectively.
There's no point in handicapping the result when the next round is so far off. Squads will change, as will form and quite possibly managers and tactics. The fun part for English fans is they have a second chance to bring football home again in the tangible as well as spiritual sense. Even better, Portugal is a pleasant destination in June.
The draw for the finals capped off the group stage but only affected the group winners in League A, the Nations League's top division. Teams who finished bottom in Leagues A, B and C dropped down a level. Sides who won Leagues B, C and D moved up. There were some fascinating developments in the promotion and relegation phase of the competition.
Take a look.
Germany and World Cup finalists Croatia dropped out of the top flight along with more predictable victims Iceland and Poland. Joachim Low has some work to do to restore die Mannschaft's elite status.
Meanwhile, it's a positive sign for England to be the lone squad among the World Cup's final four to carry their momentum past that tournament.
From League B, war-torn Ukraine, Sweden, Bosnia and Denmark rise up to replace the four downward bound nations. That the Ukrainians won their group says much about their spirit. Defiance in the face of the turmoil within their country and the struggle to win back Crimea from Russia doesn't prove that sport heals all wounds. It does help ease the pain for a time, however.
The Danes put their own political infighting to one side to win their group. At the outset, there was real doubt they'd field a full-strength squad as the Federation attempted to strong-arm the players over image rights that conflicted with their personal endorsement deals. In the end, they came through at Wales and Ireland's expense.
The Republic finished bottom of the group, dropping down to League C with Slovakia, Turkey and Northern Ireland. It sets up a possible group clash between the Irish squads in two years' time. More imminently, the disappointment convinced the FAI to dismiss Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane's good cop, bad cop act for Mick McCarthy, who provides both for half the price.
The Home Nations broke even in the inaugural Nations League in terms of promotion and relegation. While Northern Ireland fell, Scotland ascended, winning their group handily over Israel and Albania, with three wins and a draw in their four matches. Finland, Norway and Serbia join them in the second flight. Albania, Estonia, Slovenia and Lithuania all sunk to the lowest tier. Ukraine aside, it wasn't the best tournament for former members of the Soviet Bloc in League C.
It was much better for Eastern European countries in the bottom tier. Georgia and Belarus absolutely dominated their quartets although Luxembourg put up a decent fight in Group 2. The Macedonians also move up a level.
While the football in League D may not have been top drawer, the performance of UEFA's newest members was a pleasant surprise. Tiny Gibraltar finished third in their group, winning two matches from their six. Kosovo absolutely shone, claiming four wins and sharing points in the other two while scoring 15 goals and conceding just two.
Along with the other top teams from Leagues B, C and D, the Kosovans will play off in March for a place in Euro2020 if they haven't already made the cut through normal qualifying. There's an argument that minnows don't belong in the prestigious European Championship but Kosovo's play in the inaugural Nations League suggests these minnows could be piranhas.