The rise of the UEFA Nations League

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As the finals of the UEFA Nations League took place on Sunday in the beautiful city of Porto, between the home country Portugal and Netherlands, majority of football supporters will look back at the contest and will wonder what the actual strengths and positives are of the competition.

To start off with, the lively challenge and crucial thrill has been instantly injected into when the international break arrives, rather than the usual pointless friendly matches that take place here and there. Because of these futile games, a large number of well-known players feel their hunger for success and concentration decreases during the 10 to 14 days they spend in another environment.

Now, looking back at the UEFA Nations League from a fans point of view, it can easily be stated that the tournament is closely watched and followed by nearly everyone as the manager as well as the players have began to take it serious.  The winners receive a trophy as the prize award and another chance to qualify for the 2020 European Championships should they fail to do so through the qualifiers.

Given that the chances of winning either the Euros or the World Cup are very little for the countries outside of the top ten teams, this short competition will allows the likes of Croatia, Denmark and Serbia to potentially be successful in the long run. Not only that, both the players and the managers from these respective countries would receive more recognition going into the major tournaments.

Thanks to this incredible format, the supporters of the beautiful sport of football had the chance to see Netherlands overcoming France and Germany, England dominating Spain and having revenge on Croatia as well as both Portugal and Switzerland magically making it through their respective groups. On that note, there shouldn’t really be any issues or queries that downfalls this entertaining system.

Digging more into it, the system has been organised by four leagues and where they are placed separately by their current world rankings, with the motivation and inspiration being to reach League A before heading onto the knockout stages of the competition. The winners of the league move up a level, on the other hand, those who finish at the bottom are relegated to the tier below.

When reviewing it from the UEFA’s prescriptive, they have turned the friendly matches into a more meaningful list of fixtures, which gives the governing body of European football a better reputation for what they stand out for. And financially, the Union of European Football Associations can make a huge amount from the contest compared to making nothing at all from the international friendlies.

Overall, with how straightforward and effective the Nations League has been, it would not be a surprise to see a similar setup for the international football countries that are based in Asia and South America. If it was to end up happening, all the parties would see it as a win-win outcome, from the people making the decisions off the pitch to the supporters watching it live or at home.

Portugal win first ever UEFA Nations League as Ronaldo revels in the glory

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Portugal beat the Netherlands 1-0 in the final of the first ever UEFA Nations League to crown only their 2nd ever international trophy and both have been won with Cristiano Ronaldo in the side.

The win which was deserved only underlined Portugal’s status, after all they did win the last European Championships in 2016, but this win will sit nicely with a team that have to surely be regarded as one of the favourites to win Euro 2020 next year.

While the European Championships remain much more important than the Nations League this was still an incredibly special night for Portugal given that the final was in Portugal. Ronaldo was part of the Portuguese team who in the 2004 final lost against Greece in what was seen as a shock 1-0 defeat. This happened in Portugal in front of their home fans, so even though this isn’t another European Championship it was a UEFA final and surely meant a lot to Ronaldo and his teammates.

But it wasn’t Ronaldo who was the goal scoring hero that went to Goncalo Guedes who struck what turned out to be the winning goal on the hour mark. Portugal deserved to win the game and had more clear cut chances, but they also looked more hungry and determined for the win.

As for the Netherlands, reaching a final marks a huge improvement for them, after reaching the 2010 World Cup final the Orange as they are so famously called have really struggled this decade and failed to qualify for major tournaments. They look to be back on the right track, but they will have to be less naïve in the future if they are to remain consistent and win trophies.

The match was very telling on how one team wanted the win and the other in the Netherlands felt that their semi-final victory over England where they won the match 3-1 after being a goal down was their personal final.

Ronaldo played his part too as he usually does and was seen in defence giving orders- when one sees Ronaldo like this just like in the Euro 2016 final when he was forced off with injury, but supported the players from the side lines one sees a potential future coach in the player.

And what of the UEFA Nations League? Has it been a success? Well in a nutshell yes and it does give the football fan something extra to cheer about and watch after the domestic season has ended. What is clear is that when it comes down to the semi-finals and final we are not watching friendly exhibition games anymore, all teams at that point want to win, that is the positive of it. However it still has a long way to go in convincing some of the bigger nations in the group stages of the competition to get their best game on, some like Italy and Spain didn’t seem too bothered. With time that might just change.

 

Does the importance of club football hamper Messi and Ronaldo in international games?

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The domestic football season has taken a break for the next week and some of the football results have been a surprise. Portugal drawing 0-0 with Ukraine was one, featuring Cristiano Ronaldo, the European champions could not beat Ukraine on their home turf. The other match that stuck out was a Lionel Messi Argentina team who lost 3-1 to Venezuela.

Argentina’s result was seen as a huge shock, even though the match was just a friendly and as usual Messi was given the scapegoat tag. How could it be that such a wonderful gifted player who is in brilliant form for his club side Barcelona not be able to perform and inspire his side to what should have been, at least on paper, a routine win?

One has to wonder if the importance of club football and the ever decreasing unimportance of international football is having its effect? Look at the evidence. An international match of no significance has come up bang in the last moments of the Spanish league title. Barcelona are 10 points clear and should win, but in a couple of weeks they will be playing in the Champions League against Manchester United.

Messi should be preparing for these matches both physically and mentally. Playing against Venezuela in a match that counts for very little save a few FIFA rankings points makes very little sense. The only saving grace for him and other international players who have bigger and more important games coming up is that the match was in Europe, Madrid to be exact at Atletico Madrid’s ground.

Is it any wonder then that players like Messi are not motivated to play in the match? It can end up being  a physical game, so what happens if he gets injured and then misses important matches for Barcelona, that actually mean something? At least in Europe, UEFA saw that friendlies were meaningless and introduced the UEFA Nations League. Whilst that competition does have its own flaws, it is still much better than friendless.

As for Ronaldo the situation was different in the fact that Portugal’s 0-0 draw with Ukraine was a Euro 2020 qualifier, but still it took the Juventus man time to get into the game. True the match ended up being a one sided affair where Portugal had an incredible 18 corners and dominated possession. But it was also a match where they really should have strolled home to a victory. With several players involved in title run ins again it just feels that such matches with just two months of the season in Europe left to play, simply come at the wrong time.

With such a full football calendar that UEFA have, it seems that nothing is going to change in the short run. But especially when matches are friendly ones, we shouldn’t be too shocked if the worlds best players are not up for a game, with so many important competitive fixtures around the corner.

 

 

 

João Mário: “We are a strong side and we have the quality to win”

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João Mário gave an exclusive interview to Mediaset yesterday in which he previewed this weekend’s Coppa Italia clash against Benevento. The Inter midfielder was also full of praise for the manner in which Luciano Spalletti has welcomed him back into the fold following the uncertainty of last summer’s transfer window. Here is what the Portuguese international had to say: Continue reading

Looking back to how Cristiano Ronaldo emerged as a centre-forward at Real Madrid

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On the 4th January of 2016, a new era began at the Santiago Bernabeu, where Zinedine Zidane was announced as the new manager of Real Madrid on a two-and-a-half-year deal. The departure of Rafa Benitez was simply inevitable, as his short and unconvincing time at the club had to come to an end.

At the time of the announcement, there were a lot of mixed thoughts on the decision made by Los Blancos, with the majority being filled with excitement as the Frenchman aimed to extend his legacy at the club by bringing in success as a manager. However, the rest of the footballing world felt the appointment was a huge risk, with Zidane lacking managerial experience and tactical knowledge.

During his time as the coach of Real Madrid, Zidane went on to one La Liga title, three Champions League trophies and one Spanish Super Cup as well as a number of individual awards. The European dominance along with winning the club’s 33rd league title in 2017 would not have been possible had the coach kept Cristiano Ronaldo on the left flank instead of moving him up top as a lone forward.

Focusing more on Ronaldo, he first started to acknowledge this new role under Benitez, when Karim Benzema was suffering from a few injury issues. The five-time Ballon d’Or winner faced a number of problems whilst playing in this position, with the main one being the side was not built around him, and Benitez’s defensive style of play did not work well with Real Madrid’s free-flowing system.

On the other hand, once Zidane was introduced into the managerial picture, Ronaldo became the perfect number nine in Europe due to his movement on and off the ball and his pure instincts. The best example to show that he adjusted to a new approach and style is the 3-0 victory over rivals Atletico Madrid in November 2016, when his hat-trick summed up his growth as a centre forward.

The 4-4-2 diamond formation got the best out of both strikers in Benzema and Ronaldo, with the former playing as the deep-lying forward who would combine with the midfielders, whilst the latter would remain in the final third of the pitch and come up with the goods for when his side needed him the most. Overall, the improvements became evident as the trophies started to come in.

Ronaldo’s transition from being a dazzling winger to a dominant and ruthless forward became much easier, when Portugal coach Fernando Santos started playing him up front alongside either Ricardo Quaresma or Luis Nani. Playing in the same role as well as a similar formation at both club and international level has allowed the Madeira-born star to adapt and thrive within this new change.

It’s definitely not easy to pick out an international game that proved Portugal were on top of their game and the opposition. Though, the most recent and memorable competitive fixture that comes to mind is the World Cup match between Portugal and Spain, where Ronaldo’s incredible hat-trick allowed his team to pick up a vital point early in the tournament as they went past the group stages.

Throughout the closely-watched game, Portugal were defensively sound and composed to a certain level whilst Ronaldo’s influence on the pitch gave Santos’ men some hope that they would get something out of this match. In the end, the test of patience pulled through as Portugal earned themselves an invaluable point and Ronaldo went on to steal the headlines for the next few days.

Overall, it is fair to say that two to three managers have helped Ronaldo to become the centre-forward he is today. Although he is playing as a left-winger for Juventus at this moment of time, the Italian side will be relying on his individual brilliance in strike as the Serie A and Champions League campaign goes on, especially given that they are aiming to complete the treble this season.

From England to Portugal who will win the first UEFA Nations League?

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We know now who will take part in the very first UEFA Nations League semi finals which will be held next year in Portugal in June.

Even though there have been mixed reactions to the new competition it does seem like the majority of teams are at least taking the games seriously enough and if the group stages didn’t convince some the semi final and final of this competition will and they are sure to be classic and intense matches.

The first thing we need to know is that the draw has not been made yet for the semi finals- this happens in December. We do of course know who will have the chance to pick up the very first Nations League trophy and below we will look at each teams chances.

England

What a year it has been for Gareth Southgate and England, reaching their 2nd semi final of a competition after their World Cup exploits in Russia this summer. England have had to beat Croatia who knocked them out of the World Cup in the last four and Spain away from home to get here, so there has been no lucky games for the three lions. Southgate has believed in youth and has shown hands on managerial one to one expertise which has run through this team. England want to play to win and have their best team in a generation. This could be England’s first chance of silverware since winning the World Cup in 1966.

Portugal

Portugal will be the favourites to win the competition- mostly because of two things; they are at home and they have Cristiano Ronaldo- although after what should be a taxing an thrilling season for Ronaldo, his debut one in Serie A with Juventus they will be hoping that their man is fit enough and ready for the occasion. The last time Portugal hosted a tournament at home they lost in the final to Greece. Although they have more than made up with that in recent times winning Euro 2016.

Switzerland

Switzerland will be seen as the rank outsiders to win this, although their 5-2 demolition of Belgium, a side that dazzled at the World Cup should have raised some eyebrows. They are here on merit and always put in a solid display making them a hard side to beat. Switzerland have never won a major trophy, and will be 100% motivated to do so.

Netherlands

It’s fair to say that since reaching and then losing in the 2010 World Cup final, the Netherlands have been very poor, failing to qualify for the last World Cup and going through many coaches and a transition of sorts. It’s also fair to say that they played poorly in their final Nations League group game against Germany and yet claimed a 2-2 draw which saw them beat France on goal difference to be here. Perhaps the Germany draw was a real turning point for the nation, and they could be a genuine danger to any side come next June.

 

 

Caution should be applied as Gareth Southgate’s England reach UEFA Nations League semi finals

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England have had a superb calendar year which has culminated in reaching their second competition semi final in a row, the UEFA Nations League after this summers World Cup. Ironically to do so they had to beat Croatia, the team that they lost to at the World Cup.

The game against Croatia which was held at Wembley Stadium in London was awash with revenge, but it was the away team that took the lead, and with just thirty minutes left it looked like England would yet again lose to the World Cup runners up. But an equaliser followed and Harry Kane got the winner and it’s true that the weight of that World Cup loss was lifted.

The nation is lifted and England will now go to play in the semi finals in Portugal next June- their opponents will not be known until December when the draw is made.

The press have put down England’s opponents. Croatia have been called wannabe’s whilst there was plenty of jibes at Germany after they were relegated from League A. The question though is does any of this really matter? After all Croatia did knock England out of the World Cup and did reach the final. Germany won the World Cup in 2014, and although they have had a rough 12 months will bounce back. Some respect needs to be afforded to these teams.

Imagine if England go on to win the Nations Cup, it would be the first real trophy England would have won since winning the World Cup in 1966- no we are not going to count the Le Tournai tournament in 1998 where the winning captain Alan Shearer had a face like thunder. If England win, the country may just go into hyperbole. But hold your horses, this isn’t the European Championships and it isn’t the World Cup, it is just a glorified competition borne from UEFA that just adds more football to an over inflated season.

In some ways you can’t blame coach Gareth Southgate and the players- they play too win, and there is a trophy and prestige to be won. You beat who is in front of you and now there is an extra final to be played, so of course you are going to take it seriously. But should pundits and fans? Does there not come a time where we can separate the competitions that matter? If we fixate over every small competition are we all just settling for second best? So if England do win it, congratulations, but hopefully there won’t be an everlasting love in, after all it is a competition that just feels like batched glorified friendlies with points.

Southgate is a good coach, a good listener and has a real chemistry with his players. This squad wants to play for him, and let’s not be churlish here, England does have a very good team, good enough to win Euro 2020? Right now that would be in balance, but in 2 years time with progress made and no hitches, England have every chance. Don’t fall for second best has to be the mindset here. Play these games, win them and move on to what really matters.

 

Ciro Immobile’s critics are wrong – it’s time for Italy to embrace the King of Lazio

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Ciro Immobile is Italy’s best striker. This is an opinion, but were you to water down the essential responsibility of a forward to scoring goals, it becomes a fact.

Finding the net is something the 28-year-old has done with stunning regularity since joining Lazio in the summer of 2016. In just over two years in Rome, he has notched 76 goals in 104 appearances, including a 41-goal haul last season that saw him crowned as joint-top scorer in both Serie A and the Europa League.

His incredible strike rate has shown no signs of slowing down this season, with Immobile having already scored eight league goals, one less than leading scorer Krzysztof Piatek and the same number as a certain Cristiano Ronaldo.

Continue reading

Andre Gomes fills the Arteta void for Everton

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Seven years after Mikel Arteta left Everton for Arsenal they may have finally found his replacement. Andre Gomes has filled a hole that the Blues have been looking to fill for the best part of a decade.

Dubbed the best little Spaniard we know by an adoring Goodison Park faithful, Arteta was an undisputed star during his time on Merseyside. Ask anyone to rank the club’s best ever signings and he is always towards the top of the list.

Fleet of foot with an eye for a pass and a goal, he finished the 2006-07 campaign with nine goals in 35 league games, no club in the Premier League has ever spent £2 million better. Man of the match awards were a regular occurrence as far as Arteta was concerned. Continue reading

Will the UEFA Nations League survive in the long run?

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There has, of course, been no domestic football around Europe in the top leagues now for the past 9 days and that will stretch to two weeks because the UEFA Nations League has taken over the football calendar, but is the new competition really good for football in general, and will it be able to survive?

On the face of it the Nations League seems like a great idea, instead of meaningless friendlies which were always about box office receipts why not have international teams play each other and it means something? And that’s what the Nations League is in a nutshell, come next June one nation will be holding aloft a trophy.

However with UEFA there is always a catch, and this one is that only the best teams can win the trophy. Rankings are in place which means the likes of Scotland or Sweden can’t actually win the tournament. They are in different leagues and the best they can do is be promoted from said league and try to work their way up to league A in order to have a chance to win.

But is the Nations League that important and relevant? In general international teams are putting out strong squads but Portugal have still rested Cristiano Ronaldo, something that would never happen if a major tournament was taking place. And let’s not forget the introduction of the Nations League hasn’t killed the friendly game which is still taking place.

Qualification for major tournaments has now been pushed back, so instead of matches to qualify for Euro 2020 taking place in September those games do now not start until next March. It seems that the Nations League is simply adding another unwanted competition to the list of games and players are looking all the more fatigued for it.

And what of the winners of the competition? If for example England were to win it, but what it matter? It would be their first trophy since winning the World Cup in 1966, but it isn’t the World Cup and it isn’t the European Championships. In short it feels like the Intertoto Cup of the International arena.

Perhaps the best solution would have been for the Nations League to never have materialised and still have a greater number of friendlies reduced, because international matches and becoming like adverts between a major movie. It is becoming harder and harder to get engrossed with the major leagues, every time the drama reaches fever pitch, the Nations League and friendlies kick which has the ability to bring us all down.

It would be no surprise, if in 10 or 15 years time the Nations League is something consigned to history, many other minor international cup competitions have fallen on their own sword and the introduction of the event seems like a money grab.