Nations League: Modric, van Dijk, and Eriksen win
On a busy day for UEFA Nations League A Groups 1 and 4, Holland booked passage to the semifinals by topping Group 4, defeating visiting Belgium 1-0 with a header from Virgil van Dijk. The Dutch, who had defeated Belgium 4-1 in Brussels, won the group by six points while Wales, who lost 0-1 at home to Poland, got relegated to League B.
In Group 1, surprising Denmark tore France up once more defeating them 2-0 in Copenhagen with two first-half goals and a tough second-half defense. The Danes had beaten France previously 2-1 at Stade de France. But the overall group winner was Croatia who defeated Austria away 3-1 with a rampant Luca Modric pulling his team’s strings and notching a pretty goal to open the scoring.
With seven of the eight teams in these two groups going to the World Cup in Qatar in November, a number of things immediately stood out that might presage future performances. Holland, Croatia, and Denmark are ready, France, Belgium, Wales, and Poland are not.
Croatia looked very good coming from behind to beat Denmark 2-1 at home and defeating Austria away when they needed to. In both games, Modric played at his own stellar level and Christian Eriksen did the same in leading the Danes. Croatia is in Group F with Morocco, Belgium, and Canada and it is hard to imagine the Africans or North Americans progressing from the group. The issue for Croatia and Belgium will not be which team progresses in which order as one team will likely meet Spain while the other will likely meet Germany. Those two matches are worth the price of admission to the cup.
Denmark is again matched up with France in Group D in Qatar’s cup. It is doubtful the other two group members, Australia or Tunisia will challenge for progression but it will be interesting to see who comes in second from the group as they will likely meet Argentina in the Round of 16 and again another incredible game looms.
Wales seems the weakest of the Qatar-bound teams as they need a near-perfect performance from the other ten players on the pitch to allow Gareth Bale’s contribution to be decisive. Given they will play England, the USA, and Iran, their progression, should they play as they did these past two losses to Belgium and Poland, is in serious doubt.
While the USA may have lost their friendly (0-2) against Qatar-bound Japan earlier Christian Pulisic did not play, and a number of USA players were having bad days. If the USA can get back to where they were in early June when they drew 0-0 with Uruguay and beat Morocco 3-0, then they have a chance to progress.
Meanwhile, Iran is still trying to find its footing as they lost (1-2) to Algeria while following that up with a 1-0 win over Uruguay. If the Iranians show up with their A-game the USA has their work cut out for them.
Holland have been surprising of late. They can take teams apart and then fall apart at the most inopportune times. But since October of 2021, they have gone nine wins, three draws, and no defeats while playing the likes of Germany and Belgium. The Netherlands is in World Cup 2022 Group A with Qatar, Ecuador, and Senegal. If the Dutch bring their A-game they will have no competition in booking their Round of 16 match against likely opponent USA.
Poland avoided relegation in the Nations League thanks to two wins over Wales and an away draw against the Dutch, but they do not look consistently convincing. Placed in Group C at Qatar they will have their hands full with Argentina, and a Mexico that is just barely beginning to get its mojo back. Saudi Arabia is counting on its many friendlies to reach a higher level, as without it even a weak Poland has the upper hand.
This brings us back to Belgium. Why do they play so masterfully one game and not so much the next? Or to be fair about their loss to Holland, why so unlucky? The Belgians had at least five golden chances to score in a game they lost 0-1 and Dodi Lukebakio’s 90th-minute bicycle kick shot off the post with the Dutch goalie beaten was only one of them.
Photo: Dutch Virgil van Dijk – Shutterstock ID: 1840858189, by Paolo Bona