On Thursday evening England will play their second successive semi-final of a major tournament for the first time since 1968. In qualifying ahead of Croatia and Spain, England have demonstrated they are now serious contenders for major honours. The challenge now is to win their first trophy of the millennium.
How Important is the Nations League?
As a new tournament The Nations League doesn’t have the prestige of the World Cup or European Championships. However this is a major tournament that involved a tough group stage in which each of Europe’s twelve elite sides consistently put out full strength teams in order to make the final four.
Comparisons with the Rous Cup or Le Tournoi are off the mark, those competitions were invitational tournaments held largely as warm ups for a major tournament a year hence and did not include a qualifying stage. Some have drawn comparisons to The League Cup in club football, given it’s a third tournament on the international calendar. Here again the comparison isn’t quite fair given Premier League & Championship sides usually play weakened teams in the League Cup up until the later stages.
The Nations League looks and feels very similar to the original format of the European Championships that ran until 1976, where a qualifying tournament and two legged quarter-finals were concluded with the four finalists playing a mini tournament. An equivalent tournament from a different sport can be found in tennis’ ATP Tour Finals currently held at the 02. Only the elite eight players qualify for the finals and the top players all desperately want the title on their roll of honour, not quite a Grand Slam but the next biggest prize the sport has to offer.
A Ruthless Cut
Gareth Southgate picked an initial 27 man squad that included few surprises with in form youngsters Aaron-Wan Bissaka, Phil Foden and James Maddison kept in the Under 21 squad travelling to Italy this summer. Southgate surprised some when World Cup hero Kieran Trippier was one of the four culled for the finals. Trippier has endured a torrid season with Tottenham and with England switching to a back four there was no need to pick three right backs in the travelling party. Also cut were Harry Winks who is still recovering from injury and Southampton duo James Ward Prowse & Nathan Redmond, both of whom look fringe players in Southgate’s plans. Despite not playing since the Champions League quarter-final captain Harry Kane is retained. Meanwhile Manchester City’s Fabian Delph is perhaps fortunate to be in given his lack of games for his club, doubts over Winks’ fitness and the ruptured achilles suffered by Ruben Loftus-Cheek appear to have kept Delph in the touring party.
Much has been made of the close proximity between Saturday’s Champions League final and England’s semi-final against Holland. With seven of the England squad playing each other when Spurs take on Liverpool in Madrid, this will prove a test of Southgate’s ability to make his players put aside club rivalry for the needs of the national team. Thus far it’s not proved an issue in the way it clearly did with the ‘golden generation.’
England’s semi-final opponents Holland themselves have key players missing for the build up to this game due to the Champions League final in Liverpool duo Virgil Van Dyke and Georginio Wijnaldum. The Dutch qualified impressively for the finals by topping their group ahead of both France and Germany, so are the Oranje back? Defeat in Amsterdam to Germany in Euro 2020 qualifying illustrated Ronald Koeman’s side remain a work in progress. However their progress has become rapid since England defeated them last March at the Johan Cruyff Arena. The thrilling progress of Ajax in the Champions League has exemplified Holland’s rebirth as a footballing power after the national team’s failure to qualify for Euro 2016 or last year’s World Cup. Four of the Dutch squad are from Ajax including teenage sensation Matthijs de Ligt.
Follow up Opponents
Win or lose England’s tournament won’t end in Guimaraes on Thursday, they will with play the final or third placed playoff. Hosts Portugal look overwhelming favourites to win the other semi-final against Switzerland. They comfortably defeated the Swiss at home in World Cup qualifying and went unbeaten through their Nations League group despite the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo. CR7 returns for the finals, however the Swiss did produce the performance of the group stages by crushing Belgium 5-2 with the much maligned Haris Seferovic claiming a stunning hat trick.
Semi Final Predictions
England will likely pick a Manchester City heavy side against the Dutch, with Raheem Sterling leading the forward line alongside Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho. England will look to dominate possession in what is likely to be a game of few clear cut chances. However the trickery of Sancho could prove the difference and I expect England to edge it. In the other semi final, Switzerland need a good start and must be at least level at halftime to stand a realistic chance. Bernardo Silva has almost as good for Portugal as he has been for City and Portugal should have too much.
England 1-0 Holland /Portugal 2-0 Switzerland