Sport writer Jake Davies reviews the final round of the 2020/21 UEFA Nations League group stages, as the home nations experienced differing fates
It took three attempts, but the second edition of the Nations League finally kicked into gear in the last round of group stage fixtures. Promotions and relegations were confirmed and the 2020-21 finalists were decided over what was a very high-scoring international break.
Though it might not have lived up to the roaring success of the inaugural Nations League tournament two years ago, given the COVID-19 pandemic causing chaos across leagues and emptying stadiums everywhere, the final two matchday’s of this year’s group stage provided the thrills and spills European football fans had been waiting for.
The home nations’ fortunes couldn’t have differed more. England were hoping to secure entry into back-to-back Nations League finals, following their third-place finish in 2019. Unfortunately, the Three Lions were outclassed by Belgium, conceding early goals from Youri Tielemans and Dries Mertens. Gareth Southgate’s side dominated possession in the second half, but were unable to convert in attack despite excellent work from Jack Grealish on his first competitive start for England. Ultimately the visitors were unable to claw their way back into the game, and their 2-0 defeat effectively ended their hopes of reaching this year’s finals.
This defeat essentially set up England’s final group stage game against Iceland as a dead rubber fixture, but Gareth Southgate’s men were determined to show spirit in their last competitive outing before the delayed Euro 2020 tournament next summer. England’s young team played with determination and grit as they fought to catch their manager’s eye, as Declan Rice opened the scoring with his first international goal. Mason Mount added a second from close range shortly after, before Phil Foden’s late brace sealed an emphatic 4-0 win for the Three Lions.
Naturally, it is easy to criticise the quality of the opposition, as a poor Iceland were reduced to ten men early in the second half and struggled throughout, but Southgate will take solace from a promising and energetic performance as he turns his attention to squad selection for next year’s tournament.
Wales enjoyed a much more successful international break, with a 1-0 win over Republic of Ireland and a 3-1 victory over Finland securing promotion for Ryan Giggs’ side. David Brooks headed in the only goal in a cagey encounter with Ireland, whilst Harry Wilson, Daniel James, and Kieffer Moore secured an impressive victory over Finland to clinch promotion to League A – the Nations League’s top tier. Winning their group also means that should Wales miss out on automatic qualification or a play-off place for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, they are practically guaranteed a play-off spot either way. This result caps off an impressive Nations League campaign for Wales, who went unbeaten in their group and won all but one of their fixtures.
By contrast, Scotland’s strong recent form was brought crashing down with a 1-0 defeat to Slovakia, which ended a nine-game unbeaten run for Steve Clarke’s side. Perhaps still suffering hangovers after securing Euro 2020 qualification in spectacular fashion just a week earlier, Scotland slipped to back-to-back 1-0 defeats, losing to a poor Israel side just days after the Slovakia fixture. The defeat meant that Scotland will remain in League B, after finishing in second behind Czech Republic, but with a spot in next year’s European Championship to look forward to, the Scots will be more than pleased with their performance in 2020.
Northern Ireland were the only home nation to suffer relegation in the competition this year, after losing 2-1 to Austria and drawing 1-1 with Romania. Their relegation was confirmed hours before their final fixture, as UEFA awarded Romania three points for their cancelled match against Norway, which had been called off following positive COVID-19 tests in the Norway camp. Four defeats and two draws meant that Northern Ireland finished rock bottom of Group B1 with just two points. Ian Baraclough’s side will attempt to move on swiftly from a dismal campaign and turn their focus to the upcoming World Cup Qualifying draw in December.
Elsewhere in the Nation’s League, the competition seemed to be invigorated by a sense of consequence as promotions and relegations encouraged energy and excitement. Ruben Dias scored twice as Portugal edged Croatia 3-2, Olivier Giroud also scored a brace as world champions France came back to beat Sweden 4-2, and, in a shocking but brilliant fixture, Ferran Torres scored a hat-trick as Spain trounced Germany 6-0, inflicting their heaviest competitive defeat. The stories and headlines circling social media acted as a reminder of the potential this tournament has; potential which it can certainly live up to once fans are permitted to return to stadiums in large numbers and breathe fresh life into international football.
Ultimately, after all the highs and lows of the past three months, the UEFA Nations League 2020-21 finalists were confirmed. After beating the Three Lions, Belgium eased past Denmark 4-2 to secure their spot in the sophomore finals, whilst Italy just edged last year’s runners up Netherlands by a single point in their group, beating Bosnia-Herzegovina 2-0 to reach the finals. Spain’s incredible dismantling of Germany ensured they would join the Azzurri, and N’Golo Kante scored the only goal of the game as France defeated current Nations League Champions Portugal and secured their place in the final four with one game to spare.
With another group stage wrapped up, England can reflect upon a mixed, albeit ultimately disappointing second campaign in the Nations League. Southgate will need to work out the best way to implement the attacking young players into his squad before Euro 2020, with the likes of Grealish, Mount, and Foden making strong cases for their inclusion.
It was a mostly flat tournament overall with drab results and little excitement, but thankfully the final chapter was a thrilling one and with both the European Championships and Nations League finals to come in 2021, the future of international football looks bright.
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