Tuesday 25 June 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Nations League reveals home truths'

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Kosovo’s Arber Zeneli celebrates the second of his three goals against Azerbaijan in the Nations League on Tuesday. Photo: Reuters
Kosovo’s Arber Zeneli celebrates the second of his three goals against Azerbaijan in the Nations League on Tuesday. Photo: Reuters
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

The Nations League was the competition no-one asked for and no-one was looking forward to. But it turned out to be exactly the competition we needed. The ramifications of the convoluted qualifying process might not be entirely clear, but who cared when England and Croatia were going at it hammer and tongs in the last ten minutes at Wembley, when Virgil van Dijk met Tonny Vilhena's cross on the volley in injury-time against Germany, and when Kosovo made history?

Ireland's campaign was astoundingly wretched. Only one of the 55 competing teams, San Marino, scored fewer goals. Just four - San Marino, Iceland, Northern Ireland and Lithuania - had a worse record. So, mired in our own misery, it was easy for Irish fans to miss out on all the fun of the Nations League fare.

Anyone paying attention can't have missed how much better this new innovation was than the usual run of lifeless friendlies which normally pass the time between the end of the World Cup finals and the European Championship qualifiers. The Nations League wasn't just superbly entertaining, it also provided a fascinating snapshot of the state of European football.

Perhaps the most telling development was the return of Holland. Having failed to qualify for the last two major tournaments, the Dutch scraped into the last place in League A, a hair ahead of Austria and Wales.

Faced with World Cup winners France and a Germany eager to prove that their disastrous Russian campaign had been ein of those things, Holland looked relegation certs. Instead they outclassed Germany and France at home and on Wednesday night in Gelsenkirchen produced a stunning comeback with two goals in the last five minutes to earn a 2-2 draw.

There's been an air of adventure about the Dutch play which calls to mind previous orange incarnations. That's great news for anyone who grew up in the 1970s and for whom the lads in orange will always rival Brazil in the magic stakes. The arrival of Ronald Koeman as manager has had an immediate effect and he's coaxed fine performances out of the flaky duo of Memphis Depay and Ryan Babel.

Koeman is also benefiting from the arrival of one of those crops of brilliant young footballers which rival tulips as Holland's leading export. Eight players under the age of 23 featured in the two games last week which secured qualification. Matthijs de Ligt, the 19-year-old Ajax centre-back, seems bound for Barcelona who also have their eye on his 21-year-old midfield clubmate Frenkie De Jong, a target for Manchester City and Holland's best Nations League performer along with Depay.

Manchester United and Liverpool are chasing 21-year-old PSV midfielder Steven Bergwijn who made his debut in last month's 3-0 win over Germany, as did his clubmate Denzel Dumfries who had a stormer at right-back against France. With Ajax poised to qualify for the Champions League knockout stages for the first time since 2006, Europe's sleeping giant seems set for a great awakening.

Germany seemed inclined to shrug off their nightmarish World Cup as a fluke, yet relegation to League B will surely lead to a big reappraisal. Joachim Loew's side were toothless in attack, not scoring from play till their final game, and the man who six months ago was probably world football's most impregnable manager is now under severe pressure.

When Spain began the Nations League with a 6-0 win over Croatia it was easy to dismiss their Russian misadventure as a mere blip culminating in an unlucky exit against an incredibly fired-up home side. Yet the way England ripped apart Luis Enrique's side in Seville and Croatia beat them 3-2 in Zagreb were wake-up calls. With Sergio Ramos a diminished figure these days and David De Gea in indifferent form, Spain are as dysfunctional in defence as Germany are in attack.

As France, Spain and Germany bit the dust, the door seemed finally open for Belgium's gifted team to grab some silverware. But they were knocked out this night last week by a Swiss side whose 5-2 victory in Lucerne made it 14 goals in four games. So the final four is a quartet nobody would have predicted.

England will fancy their chances and their achievement in qualifying ahead of Spain and Croatia shows there was nothing freakish or fortunate about their progress to the World Cup semi-finals. Gareth Southgate has proved himself as an international manager and in Harry Kane he probably has Europe's second best striker.

Yet it's the team possessing Europe's best who look the most likely winners next June. The fact that the finals will take place in his home country should tempt back Cristiano Ronaldo who sat out the group stages. In his absence, Portugal were clinical about seeing off Italy and Poland. That they're actually reigning European champions seems to be forgotten sometimes.

League B proved equally unpredictable with none of the top seeds making it through. Expectations that Russia would kick on from the emotional high of the summer proved ill-founded as they couldn't get past those serial illusion destroyers, Sweden. Bosnia-Herzegovina's eclipse of Austria was the biggest surprise and a triumph for the legendary Robert Prosinecki in his first year as manager.

Scotland's attacking exploits in League C raised a few eyebrows. For quite a while our neighbours to the north-east have played with the kind of joie de vivre which suggested they were being coached by Private Frazer from Dad's Army. It's telling that when James Forrest hit the hat-trick in the 3-2 win over Israel which guaranteed them qualification, he became the first Scottish player since Denis Law in 1963 to score more than one goal in successive international matches.

Alex McLeish always looked a good choice for Scotland yet the expansiveness with which his team played in that victory and the 4-0 away win over Albania last Saturday was an eye-opener. Whether they'll stick to their attacking guns against stronger opposition remains to be seen but for the first time in a while Scotland have cause for hope. In Forrest and Bournemouth's Ryan Fraser they have reminders of the bygone days when so many of English football's flair players came from north of the border.

Nothing was more heart-warming than Kosovo's achievement in topping Group Three of League D and securing a play-off for a place in the 2020 finals. Still as much an enclave as it is a country, Kosovo is having a tough time in its early days of nationhood. A friend of mine who visited there recently said he saw pockets of poverty which had no equivalent in the rest of Europe. He also spoke highly of the friendliness and decency of the people.

The football team which represents those people only played their first competitive match two years ago. In that World Cup qualifying campaign they earned one point from ten matches. League D is hardly the toughest competition yet Kosovo seemed to have little chance against an Azerbaijan team who were good enough in the World Cup qualifiers to defeat Norway and draw away to the Czech Republic.

Kosovo started by drawing with Azerbaijan in Baku. When they beat the Faroe Islands 2-0 in September it was their first victory. And when on Saturday of last week they won 5-0 in Malta it meant a draw in their final match against the group favourites would see them through. Tickets for the game sold out in 32 minutes. The demand was so great players couldn't even get tickets for their families.

On Tuesday night 12,500 fans packed into the Fadil Vokrri Stadium in Pristina. Arber Zeneli, who plays with Dutch side Heerenveen, curled a stunning shot home from the edge of the box in the second minute. In the 50th he cut through the middle of the Azerbaijan defence to make it two. Just after the hour Dinamo Zagreb defender Amir Rrahmani soared to meet a free-kick and put Kosovo 3-0 ahead. Zeneli, having one of those games where nothing can go wrong, cut in from the left and curled in another beaut to round it off.

"We are very euphoric and the people here are all going crazy," said midfielder Besar Halimi. "For many people in Kosovo football means everything," said his team-mate Donis Avidijaj. Kosovo hit the headlines during the World Cup when Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri mimed the national eagle symbol after scoring for Switzerland against Serbia. There was no Kosovo team for either star to play for when they started their international careers.

Now there is and the minnows have been given a massive boost by UEFA's decision to grant the top Group D teams a play-off spot. Why not do this? Wouldn't a Kosovo, a Macedonia or a Georgia enjoying a first finals add something to the tournament? Like the decision to launch the Nations League in the first place, this was an inspired call by UEFA. So was the idea to have the lesser countries playing opponents of equal ability rather than being subjected to the usual ritual slaughter. Sometimes football administrators get things right and deserve credit.

The first Nations League has been a wonderful football carnival so far. What a pity Ireland was on the outside looking in. We might as well have not entered at all.

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