Nations League thrills and spills win over skeptics

Portugal's forward Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates with teammates after the UEFA Nations League final football match against the Netherlands. (AFP)
Updated 11 June 2019
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Nations League thrills and spills win over skeptics

PORTO: Portugal's victory in the inaugural Nations League sparked celebrations long into the night in Porto on Sunday, but the hosts were far from the only ones happy at the end of UEFA's attempt to add more competition to the international calendar.

A complex format that saw UEFA's 55 nations split into four tiers with promotion and relegation on offer, as well as the chance of a playoff to qualify for next year's European Championships, took some time to get used to.

England's Harry Maguire even admitted before the Three Lions opening game of the competition against Spain that he did not fully understand the format.

Yet, that skepticism was washed away once the games got under way with competitive football between nations of a similar level replacing meaningless friendlies and often one-sided qualifiers.

"I think it is a great tournament," said Ronald Koeman, whose Netherlands side was beaten 1-0 by Portugal in Sunday's final.

"The intensity in the groups was really high and the idea to organize the Nations League was a perfect one. We are looking forward to the next one."

For all four sides who made the semi-finals in Portugal, the past week may well also prove to be the perfect launching pad to next summer's European Championships.

Portugal look a better side than when they won Euro 2016 with a host of young talent led by Bernardo Silva, Bruno Fernandes and Ruben Dias to ease the burden on a 34-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo.

After missing out on the last two major tournaments, the Netherlands gained some vital experience, even if they did fall at the final hurdle after beating world champions France, Germany and England to make the final.

England built on the success of reaching the semifinals at last year's World Cup by beating Spain and Croatia in the group stages, while Switzerland could easily have upset Portugal in the semifinals with better finishing.

"I am sure this tournament will become a classic because it is a tournament for the entire European family," said Portugal coach Fernando Santos. "To be the first winner will go down in history."

More than 20,000 travelling fans came to northern Portugal from England, The Netherlands and Switzerland in the past week to show that supporters had also been won over.

Yet, the success of the Nations League is likely to stir up more conflict in the continuous battle between club and country.

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp has been the most outspoken critic of adding a new competition at a time when top players are already being burned out by the demands of long, intense seasons at club level.

"If we don't learn to deal with our players in a better way, competition-wise, then it's the only chance to kill this wonderful game," said Klopp last month. "Because without the players, it's not a good one."

England's preparation for the past week was seriously affected with seven players in Gareth Southgate's 23-man squad involved in the Champions League final and all were left out from the start in defeat against the Dutch.

Yet, had England not reached the Nations League finals, they would have had two more qualifiers for the European Championships this week in a six-team group rather than five.

And having scored 10 goals in winning their opening two qualifiers, Southgate believes the Nations League is far more appealing to players, coaches and fans alike.

"We could be playing qualifying matches somewhere else tonight," he said after a second semi-final defeat in 12 months. "We weren't, we were playing another semifinal."


Fernandinho is last line of defense as City face Watford test

Updated 20 September 2019

Fernandinho is last line of defense as City face Watford test

  • Pep Guardiola’s side are 5 points behind Jurgen Klopp’s rampant Liverpool

MANCHESTER: Fernandinho stepped seamlessly into Manchester City’s backline in midweek to ease Pep Guardiola’s defensive woes but the Premier League champions know their stretched resources will be tested by a physical Watford side on Saturday.

The clubs last met in the FA Cup final in May, with City romping to a 6-0 victory to complete the first-ever domestic treble in English football history.

But just four months later Guardiola, whose side are already five points behind Jurgen Klopp’s rampant Liverpool, is facing a serious headache at the back, with Aymeric Laporte and John Stones out for significant spells.

Frenchman Laporte, described as the best left-sided defender in Europe by Guardiola, is out until at least February after injuring knee ligaments in the recent win over Brighton.

That left Stones, whose start to the season was hampered by injury, as the only specialist center-half left to partner Nicolas Otamendi, a player who has not been an automatic first choice for some time.

England defender Stones, however, suffered a muscle injury in training and reports suggest he could be out for four to five weeks.

City appear to be paying the price for a curious strategy in the transfer market.

Over the past two years, they have shown strong interest in Virgil van Dijk and Harry Maguire, only to balk at paying what turned out to be world record transfer fees for defenders.

Van Dijk went to Liverpool for £75 million ($93m) while Maguire ended up at Manchester United for £80m.

Given the vast wealth of the City’s Abu Dhabi ownership, and the fact they have broken their own club transfer record in each of the past two summers, such caution when it comes to signing center-halves seems curious.

Guardiola also famously spent big on three fullbacks — Kyle Walker, Danilo and Benjamin Mendy — in a matter of days in 2017 which makes his, and City’s, refusal to compete with Liverpool and United for center-halves all the more baffling.

The upshot of their approach was that they failed to replace veteran club skipper Vincent Kompany, who returned to Belgium.

City’s refusal to go toe to toe with their rivals means they face Watford, and new manager Quique Sanchez Flores, with only Otamendi as a fit, specialist central defender.

Watford are bottom of the league but come into the match buoyant after recovering from 2-0 down to draw 2-2 against Arsenal.

At least Guardiola has a ready-made solution, with defensive midfielder Fernandinho playing at center-back for the midweek visit to Shakhtar Donetsk, where City won 3-0.

The City manager has long spoken of moving Fernandinho back into that position as his career draws to a close although his hand has been forced by the injuries.

“That’s why he is so important for us,” said Guardiola after the victory in his side’s Champions League opener.

“We don’t have many choices. I think he is the only one I have. Other players can play in that position but Fernandinho is a clever player and so intelligent — an incredible guy.

“He did well the first game he played. Of course he has a lot of experience and personality, and what he says the people follow him in the locker room so it’s important.”

Right-back Walker is another player who could move into the center of defense in an emergency but, with Fernandinho in the veteran stage of his career now at 34, Guardiola is one injury away from a full-blown crisis.