An unusual start to the pre-season. Europe’s biennial tournament, the UEFA Nations League was under the microscope as the new season’s first competitive football action kicked-off. 55 teams across Europe will battle over the course of the next three months. The ultimate prize – European qualification and promotion to the next league while the top four nations from League A will vie to contest the finals next year.
Introduced in 2018, the UEFA Nations League replaced the former friendly games format in Europe. Usually occurring in the midst of a regular season, the current tournament offers a good opportunity for the players to warm-up ahead of the new season with the major league fixtures starting in a week’s time.
FootTheBall takes a sneak-peak into the first round of UEFA Nations League group stages contested over the weekend.
GERMANY 1 – 1 SPAIN
(League A, Group 4)
The 2010 FIFA World Cup winners locked horns with the 2014 champions. Joachmin Low deployed a 4-2-3-1 structure with Kevin Trapp starting in goal. UEFA Champions League winner, Manuel Neuer was rested after a strenuous long season. The goalkeeper choice from Low paid dividends when the Eintracht Frankfurt shot-stopper made an early recovery in the 13th minute to deny Rodrigo a clear chance at an empty goal.
Luis Enrique’s men enjoyed better control of the ball, keeping 59% possession. Midfield magician, Thiago Alcantara along with Sergio Busquets facilitated midfield dominance for La Roja. The Spanish side were, however, a victim of Germany’s menacing attack. Leroy Sane and Timo Werner operated as wide forwards. Adept with making attacking runs in behind the opposition’s defensive line, the pacey duo exploited Spain’s high line.
Emre Can was the clutch player in the German lineup. The 26-year old operated as a makeshift wide centre-back, adding an extra dimension in Low’s defense. He initiated the attack leading to Timo Werner’s opener. Can collected a return pass from Sane to deliver a diagonal long-ball finding Robin Gosens on the far-left side who eventually placed it for Werner. Chelsea’s new number nine adjusted his position to find a perfect angle, 18-yards out from the goal. Ten minutes later, another chance arrived for Werner to double the lead who side netted the ball. The creator, yet again, was Emre Can wielding his magic from the back.
Although Germany dominated the game with better chances at goal, Spain earned a crucial point in the closing stages. Jose Luis Gaya slotted the equalizer at the face of the goal in the final minute of injury time.
UKRAINE 2 – 1 SWITZERLAND
(League A, Group 4)
The full-back pair of Oleksandr Tymchyk and Bohdan Mykhaylychenko could not have asked for a better start to their life in Ukraine’s senior team. Andriy Shevchenko favoured a conservative approach. Ukraine held a medium block with a horizontally compact structure. 4-2-3-1 and 4-5-1 were their choice of weapons to stop Switzerland from having a go at their goal. It turned out to be an effective tactic against Vladimir Petkovic’s wing-back system.
Consequently, the Swiss could not manage a single shot for the first 30 minutes of the game. Ukraine were a constant threat from the wide areas. The hosts invited pressure in their own half. A successful regain of possession resulted in Tymchyk and Mykhaylychenko making inroads from the wide areas. 14 minutes into the first-half and Ukraine opened the scoring at L’viv Arena. The hosts made good use of their positional play to attack quickly from the right-flank. Tymchyk’s blistering pace was no match for Steven Zuber. The Ukranian right-back collected a through pass to lay off Andriy Yarmolenko on the second-ball after his thunderbolt shot was saved by Yann Sommer. One of the Bundesliga’s finest shot-stopper, there was no chance for Sommer to save Yarmolenko’s cheeky back-heel effort.
The visitors made it one-one with four minutes left for the first half to conclude. Haris Seferovic pulled the trigger from outside the box to find the bottom-right corner. Switzerland continued where they left off in the first half. At the 55th minute, Ruben Vargas came close to give Switzerland the lead. Unfortunately, his headed effort struck the post.
Mykhaylychenko sealed the deal with 22 minutes remaining on the clock. He cleverly read Kevin Mbabu’s pass and initiated a quick attack on the transition to eventually slip back an assist from the left flank. Oleksandr Zinchenko wasted no time to curl the ball on the far corner of the goal. Sommer could only watch the ball hitting the back of the net.
RUSSIA 3 – 1 SERBIA
(League B, Group 3)
Turned 57 on the 2nd of September, the Russian head coach received a birthday present from his cavalry the next day. Russia climbed the top of the table in Group 3 in the first round of fixture from League B. It was indeed a “happy birthday” for Cherchesov while not so much for Ljubisa Tumbakovic who completed 68 years of his life on Wednesday.
Tumbakovic’s men enjoyed a lion’s share of possession. Serbia were, by all means, a better technical side in this fixture. Despite being the dominant side, Serbia failed to find a clear chance at Russia’s goal. The hosts, apparently, guarded their half with a four-man attack at the halfway line. Yuri Zhirkov, Artem Dzyuba, Aleksei Ionov, and Zelimkhan Bakayev were the prime members in the first wave of Russia’s defense. A strong organized defensive strategy opened doors in the second half for Russia.
30 seconds into the second-half and Serbia were caught off guard. A long-pass from Anton Shunin left Serbia exposed in a three-V-two situation at the back. As a result, Strahinja Pavlovic was forced to bring Bakayev down inside the box. Russian skipper, Dzyuba stepped up to calmly place the ball from the spot.
Vyacheslav Karavayev doubled the lead before Aleksander Mitrovic scored his eighth goal in the last 12 international appearances to revive Serbia’s momentum. Three minutes later, Nikola Maksimovic lost his footing and gifted Dzyuba his brace. Russia restored their two-goal cushion and earned three points with nine minutes remaining for the full-time whistle.
ITALY 1 – 1 BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA
(League A, Group 1)
Having been a part of the group with reigning champions in the previous campaign, Italy are placed in another tricky group for the current season of UEFA Nations League. The Italians went head to head with the former League B member, Bosnia and Herzegovina.
In what initially appeared as the easiest of tasks, Bosnia and Herzegovina were a hard nut to crack. Dusan Bajevic fielded a 4-3-3 with Edin Dzeko leading the attack. The visitors played an outright defensive game, parking the bus in a 4-1-4-1 structure. Roberto Mancini setup Stefano Sensi at the base of the midfield to create link-up play from the back. Lorenzo Pellegrini, who operated as the creative box-to-box from the right half-space, often joined the attack alongside Federico Chiesa making mesmerizing runs from the right-wing. Andrea Belotti led the attack as the sole forward albeit Lorenzo Insigne was the principal target for most of Italy’s attack.
Nothing could get past the stubborn Bosnian defense. Unexpectedly, it was the Dragons who took the lead at the hour mark. Bosnia, who missed an early chance in the second half, opened the scoring with Dzeko converting two successful aerial duels from a corner into the back of the net.
Nonetheless, the Azzurri earned a hard-fought equalizer, ten minutes later. Insigne rolled back a perfect ball for Sensi whose deflected shot spared their blushes. Not the desired result for Mancini but surely a wake-up call in the first round of the tournament.
NETHERLANDS 1 – 0 POLAND
(League A, Group 1)
With the international break kicking off for the first time since the restart of football, the 2019 UEFA Nations League finalists opened their first game with a one-goal victory against Poland. It was crucial for the Dutch, for it was their first one since Ronald Koeman left and Dwight Lodeweges took charge.
The Poles on the other hand were without their star player and captain – Robert Lewandowski who had not been called for national team duty after an unusual lengthy campaign post the novel coronavirus outbreak. The Netherlands lined up in a 4-3-3 with Quincy Promes, Memphis Depay, and Steven Bergwijn playing upfront. Poland, on the other hand, fielded a 4-4-1-1 formation where Krzysztof Piatek was foremost with Piotr Zielinski as the second striker.
The Flying Dutchmen dominated with 64% possession throughout the game. They had 14 shots with four on the goal against Poland’s two. It was a goalless first-half with only Frenkie De Jong being the closest to find the net.
Memphis Depay rounded off a star performance, dribbling past opponents and trying his luck at the goal. The Lyon forward took a whopping six shots throughout the 90. The goal arrived for the hosts at the 60-minute mark as Steven Bergwijn scored the winner from a ball that had been gently floated into the box by De Jong and assisted by Depay.
ICELAND 0 – 1 ENGLAND
(League A, Group 2)
This match was a special one for it was the test run for England’s talented young squad. England played a 4-1-4-1 formation with Declan Rice playing at the center-half spot. Harry Kane started in attack leaving an in-form Danny Ings on the bench. Phil Foden was handed his first England start. Manchester United target, Jadon Sancho operated as the right-winger.
It was a theatrical fixture. Harry Kane, in the opening stages, managed to score a goal for his side that was controversially ruled offside. England continued to look sharp while Iceland could barely cash-in on the few chances they got.
With 70 minutes played of the 90, Kyle Walker was sent off following a second yellow card for a mistimed tackle. While ten-man England was just managing to hold their stride against Iceland, the visitors leveled down going ten against ten. Sverrir Ingi Ingason was sent off for a supposed handball in the box. Raheem Sterling comfortably converted from the spot in the aftermath.
The drama continued when Joe Gomez conceded a penalty in the ensuing 60 seconds. Birkir Bjarnason, nonetheless, scooped it way over the crossbar to hand England three points.
PORTUGAL 4 – 1 CROATIA
(League A, Group 3)
The most awaited games for this week took place in Porto at Estadio da Dragao. The current title holders hosted 2018 World Cup runners-up. Cristiano Ronaldo missed the game with a toe infection. Fernando Santos placed Bernardo Silva in Ronaldo’s stead on the left-wing. Joao Felix in the centre and Diogo Jota from the right-hand side completed Portugal’s attack as they used a 4-3-3 formation.
On the other hand, Croatia lined up in a 4-2-3-1. Mateo Kovacic and Mario Pasalic were paired up in the heart of the midfield. Hoffenheim star forward, Andrej Kramaric started as the sole striker.
Portugal dominated the game from the onset. Bruno Fernandes and Diogo Jota managed to hit the post thrice in the quarter of an hour after the first 20 minutes into the game. It was, however, Joao Cancelo who bagged the first goal with a banger from outside the box to send Portugal with a one-goal lead at the break. The shot from his left foot was as quick as a bullet, straight into the top left corner.
Diogo Jota continued with this post-lockdown form. After being fed a beautiful ball by Raphael Guerriero, Jota shot right past Dominik Livaković to make it two. 12 minutes later, Joao Felix made it three on the scoresheet. The coveted attacker took an attempt from outside the box leaving no chance for Croatia to make a comeback.
Bruno Petkovic got a consolation goal for the visitors in the 90th minute. Cancelo’s defensive error to control an aerial-ball allowed Ivan Perisic to earn an assist. However, the champions were not in a mood to stop. Andre Silva added another one for the hosts following a corner delivered by Bruno Fernandes.
SWEDEN 0 – 1 FRANCE
(League A, Group 3)
Current world champions, France, started the game with a three-man defensive structure. Dayot Upamecano made his debut appearance on the right side of the defense. Kylian Mbappe was the first-choice attacker as he was paired up with Chelsea’s hitman, Olivier Giroud. Antoine Griezmann was deployed as a false-nine forming a midfield trio with N’Golo Kante and Adrien Rabiot. The hosts played with a flat 4-4-2 template. Bundesliga heroes, Emil Forsberg and Robin Quaison were among the attacking group members. Seb Larsson skippered, playing as the right-winger.
Sweden managed to gain possession and attacked from time-to-time. Janne Andersson’s men created more passes and attempted nine shots in the process. Sweden took an early chance from a range when Mikael Lustwig optimistic effort sniffed past the goal.
Following a Marcus Berg attempt saved at the 38th-minute mark, France reverted with a goal. Kylian Mbappé wriggled through the Swedish defense to score from a very tight angle at the near post in the closing moments of the first half.
This was definitely not a performance the fans had expected. While Sweden failed to consummate their chances, France rarely reflected the champions’ mettle. Anthony Martial won a late penalty only for Griezmann to put it over the crossbar making it his fourth consecutive penalty miss for Les Bleus.
ELSEWHERE IN EUROPE…
⚽️ Late goals across #NationsLeague!
Most surprising result is _______
— UEFA Nations League (@EURO2024) September 3, 2020
⏰ Friday's results…
🤔 Who impressed you?#NationsLeague
— UEFA Nations League (@EURO2024) September 4, 2020
🚨 𝗥𝗘𝗦𝗨𝗟𝗧𝗦 🚨
The best performance was by ______#NationsLeague
— UEFA Nations League (@EURO2024) September 5, 2020