Still something of a novelty, UEFA’s inaugural Nations League tournament reaches its final stage with a four-team mini-competition in Portugal this week, which will be short and sharp and looks to be a wide-open contest.
It will offer Cristiano Ronaldo a chance to win a title for Portugal on home territory, 15 years after his side lost to Greece in the final of Euro 2004, which the country also hosted.
England will have the chance to win their first major title since the World Cup in 1966 while the Netherlands could win their first since Euro 1988. Switzerland could win their first ever.
It may not carry the same weight as winning a World Cup or European championship but the eventual champions are unlikely to be complaining.
“The Nations League is not the most important prize that there is, but it is a trophy nevertheless that we’d like to win,” said Dutch coach Ronald Koeman.
“The players have great passion to play for their country and this is no different,” he said. “There is a title at stake and of course we want to win,” said Portugal’s Fernando Santos.
Designed to replace lukewarm friendly internationals, the competition played between September and November last year, featured all 55 of Europe’s national teams divided into four divisions — Leagues A to D — which were themselves split into four groups.
There is promotion and relegation between each league while the winners of the four League A groups earned their places in Portugal this week. It also provides a back door for four teams to reach Euro 2020 Despite initial skepticism over the format, it was given a generally warm reception as it matched teams of a similar standard.
The finals format is quick and simple — two semi-finals, with Portugal and Switzerland meeting in Porto on Wednesday, followed by England and the Netherlands in Guimaraes on Thursday, and the final in Porto on June 9.
Hosts Portugal start as slight favourites with Ronaldo, their all-time leading scorer and most-capped player, eager to make up for what by his extraordinary standards could almost be described as a lacklustre first season at Juventus.
The 34-year-old scored “only” 28 goals and had to be content with adding just a Serie A title to his medals’ collection.
Portugal’s ‘old guard’ is still in place, with Pepe holding the defence together at 36, but there has also been the welcome emergence of some promising newcomers such as 19-year-old forward Joao Felix, who had his breakthrough season for SL Benfica, scoring 19 goals and providing 11 assists in all competition.s
England have managed to keep their momentum going after reaching the semi-finals at the World Cup last year, finishing ahead of Spain and Croatia in their group and making an emphatic start to their Euro 2020 qualifying campaign with five goals in each of their first two games.
The Dutch finished ahead of Germany and France to qualify and appear to be on the way back after missing the last European championship and World Cup.
Switzerland surprisingly pipped Belgium for their place, with a stunning 5-2 win over the World Cup semi-finalists, and are looking to make the transformation from a team that is always difficult to beat to one considered title contenders. “Our goal should be to win the tournament,” said coach Vladimir Petkovic.
INTRODUCTION OF VAR
Video Assistant Referees (VAR) will be used at this week’s UEFA Nations League finals in Portugal, Europe’s soccer governing body UEFA said on Monday.
VAR, which allows incidents to be reviewed with the help of video replays, was used at last year’s World Cup in Russia and this season’s Champions League knockout stages and will also be part of the English Premier League from next season.
UEFA briefed the coaches of Nations League semi-finalists Portugal, England, Switzerland, and the Netherlands about VAR in April and England manager Gareth Southgate has welcomed its use in the competition.
“You’ll never get a system that is 100% fail-safe but the key decisions that are clear and obvious have been rectified,” Southgate said. “My feeling is that in the main the big decisions have been right.”
The main criticisms of VAR are the amount of time it takes for decisions to be reviewed and that fans inside the stadium are left in the dark while the referee looks at replays on the sidelines.
Netherlands coach Ronaldo Koeman said the system still had room for improvement. “VAR is a good help to make football fairer and most of the mistakes will be corrected. That, of course, is a good thing.”
“We must realize, however, that discussions will continue to exist because you can often interpret actions in multiple ways. I am in favour of the VAR tackling the big, obvious issues only, rather than to search endlessly for potential errors.”