Over the next week, we will be treated to the last UEFA Nations League matches before the World Cup 2022 in Qatar takes center stage. Among the most anticipated matchups will be those involving Qatar-bound teams.
Tomorrow will feature Belgium v Wales, Croatia v Denmark, France playing Austria, and Poland v the Netherlands. On Friday, we will be treated to Germany playing Hungary and Italy playing England, while in a FIFA friendly match we have Brazil playing Ghana.
Over the weekend we have, on Saturday, the Czech Republic playing Portugal, Spain v Switzerland, and on Sunday, Austria against Croatia, Denmark v France, the Netherlands v Belgium, and Wales v Poland. On Monday we have Germany v England and on Tuesday we close with Portugal v Spain, Switzerland playing the Czech Republic, and Norway playing Serbia.
Each Qatar-bound coach will be pursuing his own agenda. Brazil’s Tite will be trying out a number of players so as to accrue political cover when he cuts them in favor of the 26 he has already decided will be in Qatar, barring unforeseen circumstances.
Wales will have played Belgium nine times over the past decade come Thursday and remarkably the teams are tied at two wins apiece and four draws. Wales, coached in competitive play for the first time by coach Robert Page, are hampered by Gareth Bale’s late arrival yesterday after Monday duties with LAFC and several key injuries including to Aaron Ramsey, but very young newbies who are making a grown-up splash (Luke Harris and Jordan James) might be called upon to pick up the slack. This might be good news for the Welsh as the added squad slots might bring about younger legs chosen for the cup.
Belgium on their side have been trying to meld the likes of traveling Romelu Lukaku (not currently selected for NL duty), with still recovering (and not often used at Real Madrid) Eden Hazard onto Roberto Martinez’s final squad. The NL will allow Martinez a few last looks at youngsters such as strikers Charles De Ketelaere (21) and Lois Openda (22), midfielder Amadou Onana (21), and defender Zeno Debast (18). Fighting for top of the group with the Netherlands, who they meet later, a depleted Wales might be the ideal team to experiment against while the Dutch the ideal team against whom to measure progress.
France are in a bid of a tizzy as they contemplate relegation ahead of key matches against Austria and group leaders Denmark. Unfortunately, aside from missing the
injured Paul Pogba, Hugo Loris, and Karim Benzema, off-field distractions include legal issues involving France Football Federation President Noel Le Great and, separately, other players, and image right disputes with none other than Kylian Mbappe. So, coach Didier Deschamps is trying to minimize the off-turf issues’ impact while bringing in replacements for the many injured.
Germany’s captain, keeper Manuel Neuer, and midfielder Leon Goretzka have both tested positive for Covid-19 and will be missing the NL games. This is bad luck for Hansi Flik’s side as Hungary currently top Nations League Group A3 and if they beat Germany away on Friday they could be moving onto the semifinals. Germany needs two back-to-back wins to ensure they are the team moving on so the two games are key and especially the Monday England-Germany matchup at Wembley.
England, winless so far, including an embarrassing home loss (0-4) to Hungary, cannot reach the finals and are only playing to avoid relegation to League B, and they are unfortunate to have must-win matches against Italy in Milan and at home against Germany. England coach, Gareth Southgate, has chosen not to call up Jadon Sancho who has lately been playing fantastic soccer for Manchester United and this has been the major point of media attention regarding the Three Lions going into the Nations League, given they have no chance of progressing. The odds are, though, that Southgate, as will many another coach after the international break, will be picking a final squad based on both players’ forms at the last possible moment and their performances at this week’s prep tourney.
Croatia v Denmark will pit the two teams in Group A1 with the inside track to win the group and progress with the winner of the match in the driver’s seat. France, the current World Champions and Nations League cup holders will be relegated if they do not produce in their final two games, in particular against Austria. Meanwhile, Croatia will attempt to win both of its games while Denmark need only defeat Croatia to qualify for the next round.
Denmark, counting on Christian Eriksen once more, will be preparing themselves for another deep run in international competition with what is becoming quite the generational crop for the small nation. After having unfairly missed the finals of Euro 2020 and having lost on penalties to eventual finalist Croatia at Russia 2018 the Danes are looking to show their stuff both in the Nations League and at Qatar. Danish coach, Kasper Hjulmand, has a squad with an ideal mix of veterans and younger players which leans toward youth and is comprised of 15 players aged 26 or younger and eight aged 30 or older, with the elders being the quality of Jens Stryger Larsen, Kasper Schmeichel, Thomas, Delaney, and Martin Braithwaite. He will be fine-tuning the entire squad while focusing on his starters this week.
In Nations League Group A2 it is down to Portugal hosting Spain on Tuesday with the winner likely topping the group and moving on. Portugal’s game with the Czech Republic and Spain’s with Switzerland are seen by both national teams as the warmups for the main course to be served at Municipal Stadium in Braga. Both Enrique and Portugal coach, Fernando Santos, will be looking to the first match as an opportunity for experimentation while the second will be a chance to fine-tune his starting lineup for Qatar.
Photo: Christian Eriksen, Shutterstock ID 1121271050, by Marco Iacobucci Epp