UEFA Nations League – teams to watch

UEFA’s new initiative to make the international break more bearable for those who despise it comes in the form of the slightly confusing formatted UEFA Nations League.

All the UEFA members have been split into four leagues based on their ranking and then split into groups inside each league.

League A is the top tier and has the top teams in it while League D has the lowest ranked teams with B and C following accordingly as the second and third best tiers.

Embed from Getty Images

The winners from the four groups in each league go through to a playoff round and the winners of each of the playoffs will qualify for Euro 2020, meaning, interestingly, there is a space for one of the bottom ranked nations to qualify.

Here are some of the teams who will be hoping the Nations League can grant them the qualification they desperately seek.

Italy

After Italy’s embarrassing failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, changes were aplenty around the Italian national team, from the boardroom, to the manager, to the players.

Roberto Mancini has replaced the now disgraced Giampiero Ventura in the managing department and optimism is slowly rising as there is a highly respectable man in the dugout with some very talented players at his disposal.

Ventura did not get anywhere near the best out of Ciro Immobile and Andrea Belotti up front despite the fact both were serial scorers in Serie A and his refusal to even play Lorenzo Insigne and Jorginho for large parts of the qualification phase was a sackable offence in itself.

However, Mancini seems to be implementing a 4-3-3 system after using it in all three of his games so far against Saudi Arabia, France and the Netherlands. So one or both of Immobile and Belotti may miss out as Mario Balotelli has been brought back into the squad too.

Leonardo Bonucci’s return to Juve alongside compatriot Giorgio Chiellini may help the pair re-establish the excellent partnership they formed while playing for Conte’s Italy side while under the guidance of Max Allegri at Juventus.

But they won’t have Gianluigi Buffon behind them anymore as he has finally given up the guard in the Italian goal.

Italy were drawn with Poland and Portugal and should really fancy their chances of topping the group come November.

But Italy’s problem over the years has always been losing when they were expected to win, Sweden in the playoffs was bad, Costa Rica in 2014 was worse, failing to beat Paraguay, New Zealand and Slovakia in 2010 was shocking but drawing at home to Macedonia in the last qualifying campaign was beyond pathetic.

Spain and Belgium in Euro 2016 though? No problem.

Embed from Getty Images

Bosnia and Herzegovina

After reaching the finals of the 2014 World Cup, nearly two decades on from the genocide which tore the country apart, Bosnia and Herzegovina had a place in the heart of every neutral and with a good amount of very talented players, they looked set to kick on from there.

However, they hit a brick wall in 2016. After being one of the 13 European teams to make the 2014 World Cup, they weren’t even able to make the top 24 teams which progressed through to Euro 2016, losing to the Republic of Ireland in a playoff after Jon Walters ran riot in Dublin.

They missed out on the last World Cup too finishing behind Belgium and Greece.

Seeing as group draws don’t often go their way, the Nations League may provide a route in which they can come from nowhere again as unfancied underdogs like in 2014. Austria and Northern Ireland join them in Group 3 in the second tier, which on paper looks like a group in which they could easily finish first or last.

Edin Dzeko and Miralem Pjanic are the two obvious superstars of the team but Edin Visca has been in superb form in Turkey for Basaksehir over the last few seasons. Those three are the only real experienced internationals as there has been a recent overhaul in the squad.

Asmir Begovic has been replaced in goal by Ibrahim Sehic and Vedad Ibisevic, Emir Spahic and Senad Lulic have all retired from the national setup.

But they have been replaced with young talent in their early to mid twenties as Bosnia seem to be using the Nations League as a way of blooding new players into the side.

Maybe not one to expect from, but certainly one to keep an eye on.

Embed from Getty Images

Greece

If any country in international football needed a kick up the backside, other than Holland, its most likely Greece.

They appointed Claudio Ranieri as head coach in July 2014 and he was sacked by November after a dismal home defeat to the Faroe Islands.

Sergio Markarian was appointed in his place, but he was no better, especially after a second loss at the hands of the Faroe Islands.

The team’s form after September 2014 proved to be woeful, with no wins in over a year, losing to Romania, the Faroe Islands twice, Finland and Northern Ireland in qualifying and Luxembourg in a friendly.

Greece finished bottom in their Euro Qualifying group despite being the Pot 1 seeded side, winning just once against Hungary in the final game.

A little over a decade after being European Champions, it was an absolute catastrophe.

Journeyman Michael Skibbe is now at the helm, the man who managed in Germany successfully and unsuccessfully from 2000 to 2004, but despite his long list of jobs, he’s now into nearly into his fourth year as Greece boss.

He guided them into the playoffs for the 2018 World Cup before they succumb to the eventual finalists Croatia after losing heavily at the Maksimir.

The team is very similar to that which endured that disaster spell four years ago, but under new management their talent is flourishing a lot more.

They have a very solid defence containing Kostas Manolas and Sokratis Papastathopoulos, as well as veteran captain Vasilis Torosidis at right-back and Orestis Karnezis in goal.

Kostas Mitroglou is still the man for goals but expect to see Anastasios Donis drafted in in the near future. Kostas Fortounis and Lazaros Christodoulopoulos are both good creative players in the midfield too so don’t be surprised to see Greece do very well.

Drawn with Estonia, Hungary and Finland, their poor showings of late means their ranking has dropped severely meaning they are in the third tier.

They will make themselves heavy favourites to win the group and then they hope they will be able to achieve Euro 2020 qualification with a playoff victory in their tier.

Embed from Getty Images

Serbia

The team which will likely be challenging Greece for the qualification spot from the third tier will be Serbia.

It’s a big surprise that Serbia’s ranking is so low seeing as they qualified for the World Cup in Russia as group winners but the chaos which surrounded their Euro 2016 qualifying has turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

Smashing chairs over the heads of Albanian players while they try and defend themselves is always gonna be retrospectively punished heavily.

Serbia were given a 0-3 loss and then were deducted another three points by UEFA after fans stormed the pitch to attack Albanian players after a ‘Kosovo is Albania’ flag was flown onto the pitch and even the Court of Arbitrary for Sport didn’t overrule it on appeal.

Fast forward to the present and Romania, Lithuania, and a very curious meeting with Montenegro await them in their Nations League group.

Just over a decade after splitting into two independent nations, Serbia and Montenegro will face off for the first time as the last two sides which made up the former Yugoslavia battle to see which one has come the furthest in those 12 years.

There is no question that on paper Serbia have the quality but Montenegro have caused shocks before including a draw at Wembley. But regardless of that, anything other than a first place finish in the group will be a disappointment.

Serbia won the under-20 World Cup in 2015 but since, not many of the players have been picked for the senior side.

Predrag Rajkovic, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Andrija Zivkovic and Nemanja Maksimovic played a big role in that success but only have 31 caps between them over the last three years.

However, they are now seemingly in line to become regulars in the side along with other promising players such as Marseille new boy Nemanja Radonjic and Nikola Milenkovic.

They still have quality players to add in amongst them, Dusan Tadic, Adem Ljajic and Aleksandar Kolarov all play at a good level and have done for many years now. Aleksandar Mitrovic has also started off very well for Fulham this season.

If those players can realise their potential, this could be a very potent Serbian team, better than any which has proceeded the Yugoslav era. Like many, Serbia are using this competition as a chance for the youth.

Embed from Getty Images

Azerbaijan

With one of the bottom 16 ranked teams set to qualify for Euro 2020 from the fourth tier, Azerbaijan have as good a chance as anybody, so it would make sense for them to focus all their attention on the Nations League as it may be their best ever chance.

With the Azeri champions Qarabag qualifying for last season’s Champions League, finishing level on points with Atletico Madrid after drawing home and away with the Spanish giants, football in Azerbaijan is improving every year.

Qarabag are now regulars in UEFA competition and they will play in the Europa League this year.

With nearly the entire squad playing in Azerbaijan and many for Qarabag, facing top European sides sits the players in good stead when playing for their country.

They have held Croatia and Czech Republic to draws in the past two years and also scored an equaliser in both games against Germany in World Cup qualifying, as well as beating Norway in Baku.

More money has been put in Azerbaijani sport and the construction of the new Olympic Stadium has given the national team a very large home and it will also host this season’s Europa League final.

They will have to overcome Malta, Kosovo and the Faroe Islands first but out of all the sides in the bottom tier, Azerbaijan are certainly one of the strongest and we may well see them compete for the League D qualification spot.

Embed from Getty Images

Kosovo

A real optimistic prediction would be to say that Kosovo may progress through that group with Azerbaijan, Malta and the Faroes, and there’s no reason to say why they can’t.

Unlike the other new FIFA and UEFA member, Gibraltar, Kosovo actually have good young players based all over Europe with Kosovan descent who have been raised elsewhere away from the troubles in the 1990s.

Convincing them to play for Kosovo is another challenge though. Xherdan Shaqiri, Granit Xhaka, Valon Behrami and Blerim Dzemaili all turned down Kosovo when given the chance to play for them after they were granted a licence. The players would have been allowed to switch nationalities but stuck with Switzerland.

Adnan Januzaj was another ethnic Kosovan who could have switched allegiances but he stayed with Belgium.

Some players have made the switch though. Valon Berisha, who was excellent for RB Salzburg last season and is now at Lazio, swapped Norway for Kosovo, exciting Werder Bremen youngster Milot Rashica swapped Albania for Kosovo and Sheffield Wednesday forward Atdhe Nuhiu went from Austria to Kosovo.

They are also in the process of trying to get Huddersfield Town right back Florent Hadergjonaj to switch from his Swiss nationality and are hoping that Bayern Munich youngster Meritan Shabani and Manchester City’s third choice keeper Arijanet Muric go on to represent them.

As well as those who have made the switch, there are a few young players already playing at a higher level than most of the opposition they will face.

Bersant Celina was impressive for Ipswich last season and is now at Swansea City have joined on a permanent deal from Manchester City in the summer.

Edon Zhegrova has hit the ground running scoring two in three caps already and gets regular game time at Genk. Arber Zeneli and Donis Avdijaj are two more young prospects who are regulars in the Eredivisie.

Despite this, they may need a few more years to get to grips with international football though.

They were given a really tough group in World Cup qualifying with Croatia, Iceland, Turkey and Ukraine all stiff opposition, but they earned a 1-1 draw in their first ever competitive game against Finland in that group.

They already have friendly wins against Albania, Latvia and the Faroe Islands, and facing sides of a similar strength to theirs will show just what level they are currently at.

Author Details

Andrew Delaney

Leave a Reply