Nations League Finals: Tomorrow's heroes await step into the unknown
- Fatigue from 10 months on the football treadmill could hinder the Nations League Finals, but a clutch of young talent should win the day.
Hosts Portugal kick-off the inaugural Nations League Finals against Switzerland on Wednesday, beginning the last act of the 2018-19 European football season.
England take on Netherlands in the other semi-final on Thursday, with the loser condemned to remain at Guimaraes' Estadio D Afonso Henriques for Sunday's third-place match.
The tournament will conclude where it began later the same day at Porto's Estadio do Dragao.
A succession of gripping group-stage encounters – notably Netherlands' 3-0 thumping of Germany, England's against-the-odds triumph in Spain and Switzerland's remarkable qualification-sealing 5-2 comeback romp over Belgium – won the Nations League a number of early admirers, retaining the feel-good factor around the international game that spilled over from a celebratory 2018 World Cup.
However, leading coaches such as Jurgen Klopp have grumbled of further additions to a competitive match schedule thought close to breaking point and, as a sizable contingent troop to Portugal following involvement in last week's Europa League and Champions League finals, there must be concerns of how much players have left in the tank.
It is perhaps just as well that, for this first edition, the teams left standing are generally closer to the beginning of cycles promising much. They are nations eyeing better days ahead, which might be more clearly signposted by the end of this week.
Southgate's Three Lions roaring louder than in Russia
When England followed their 5-0 Euro 2020 qualifying demolition of the Czech Republic in March by shellacking Montenegro 5-1 on their own patch, recalling the more lukewarm appraisals of their surprise run to the semi-finals of Russia 2018 were enough to raise a smile.
You see, England could only score from set-pieces. Not anymore.
Southgate's switch from a 3-4-2-1 that provided a solid structure, harnessed hard running but perhaps stifled creativity, to a more expansive 4-3-3 has paid handsome dividends, with Raheem Sterling revelling more than anyone.
An international goal drought that remained despite his best efforts at the World Cup is now a distant memory. Six goals in his past four international appearances show Sterling to be every bit as destructive for his country as he is at Manchester City.
Jadon Sancho is likely to start in the other wide attacking role having taken the Bundesliga by storm at Borussia Dortmund, with the teenage winger one of a clutch of players including Declan Rice, Ben Chilwell, Joe Gomez, Ross Barkley and Callum Wilson who were not part of the campaign when football threatened to come home.
Historically, any strong tournament showing from England is followed by a prolonged lean spell. Southgate is not prepared to stand still and watch the same happen to a generationally impressive crop of youngsters.
Koeman and Ajax get Dutch back in the groove
While England's enjoyable Russian excursion ended more than a decade of public indifference towards the country's national team, Netherlands have packed a journey from heroes to villains and back into a five-year period.
Louis van Gaal led the 2010 World Cup finalists to the semi-finals in 2014 but they have not featured at a major tournament since. The nadir came last March, when an embarrassing 2-0 World Cup qualification defeat in Bulgaria cost Danny Blind his job.
One of the calls that sealed Blind's fate was selecting a raw, 17-year-old Matthijs de Ligt at centre-back for what turned out to be an error-strewn performance. De Ligt, of course, is now an imperious half of a defensive partnership with Virgil van Dijk that could be the envy of international football for the foreseeable future.
19 - Matthijs de Ligt is the youngest Dutch player to score in a Champions League knockout match (19y 246d) since Nordin Wooter in April 1996 for Ajax vs Panathinaikos (19y 237d). Leader. #JUVAJA pic.twitter.com/2PzHolCmII— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) April 16, 2019
Dutch fingerprints were all over this season's Champions League, from Van Dijk's imposing performance as Liverpool downed Tottenham in the final, to Georginio Wijnaldum's semi-final heroics against Barcelona and Ajax's sensational run to the same stage.
Ronald Koeman's talent-packed Oranje side, with Barca-bound Frenkie de Jong at its hub, perhaps gave an indication of what was to come by storming into the Nations League Finals at the expense of Germany and France – the last two World Cup winners.
Santos searching for balance with next generation
Portugal have the chance to add to their Euro 2016 triumph before a raucous home crowd, but veteran coach Fernando Santos finds himself at something of a crossroads.
The Selecao famously only won once inside 90 minutes as they ground their way to glory in France three years ago, with a prosaic team built to service the great Cristiano Ronaldo and, where possible, spoil pretty much everything else.
11 - O Sporting CP marcou mais golos de fora da área do que qualquer outra equipa na Primeira Liga esta temporada (11), com esses golos a serem apontados por oito jogadores diferentes. Alcance. pic.twitter.com/rtnB35Aoan— OptaJoao (@OptaJoao) May 18, 2019
But Ronaldo has company in the flair stakes from an exciting new Portuguese generation. Bernardo Silva comes into the Finals after being named Player of the Season for a Manchester City side that swept the board in England, while Premier League heavyweights are taking an interest in Bruno Fernandes after he plundered 20 Primeira Liga goals from midfield for Sporting CP this term.
Benfica's teen sensation Joao Felix has a €120million price tag on his head. Given he has been labelled the most gifted player to emerge from Portugal since their five-time Ballon d'Or winner, there is every chance someone will meet it.
Unfortunately, drab draws with Ukraine and Serbia to start Euro 2020 qualification gave rise to fears in some quarters that the redoubtable Santos might not be the man to remove the shackles and let this Portuguese generation flourish. It would be a good time to show a wily old fox can learn new tricks.
Belgian battering gives Swiss fresh impetus
Five years into his Switzerland tenure, Vladimir Petkovic takes the most settled squad of the bunch into this competition.
Notions of a Swiss golden generation have lingered for some time without being truly fulfilled. Xherdan Shaqiri, Granit Xhaka and Ricardo Rodriguez entered last year's World Cup in the prime of their careers, only for another dispiriting exit at the first knockout round to follow.
The hope is that the manner in which they reached this stage might have flicked a switch. Thorgan Hazard's early brace for Russia 2018 semi-finalists Belgium meant Petkovic's men needed four goals to go through. They duly scored five, with Haris Seferovic plundering a hat-trick. The striker netted 23 times for Benfica in Portugal's top-flight this season.
3.2 - Haris Seferovic is averaging a goal every 3.2 shots in Liga NOS this season, the most among all players with 7+ goals. Lethal. pic.twitter.com/yoAZ6Pd7Yz— OptaJoao (@OptaJoao) April 8, 2019
"This time they really showed to everybody that they can be a big country," former Switzerland midfielder Tranquillo Barnetta told Omnisport earlier this year.
"That's why everybody in the country was so happy that they finally went through. It was a big team and they beat them.
"The potential of the countries like Holland and the other teams [brings them] pressure. There's nothing to lose and that's why I'm not afraid for Switzerland."Published 04 Jun 2019, 12:30 IST