England can end 2019 as best ranked team in Europe as Nations League wins over critics

England can end 2019 as best ranked team in Europe as Nations League wins over critics

WE all wondered what the hell Uefa’s suits had been smoking when Euro 2020 was announced.
For a sporting event to have a 60th ‘birthday’ is a bit weird but this was the reason stated for a bizarre tournament across 12 cities in different countries with Baku somehow awarded group games and a quarter-final.
4 England players prepare to take on Holland this Thursday, knowing Nations League glory could see them top the European rankingsCredit: Rex Features
4 Man Utd frontman Marcus Rashford battles it out with Raheem Sterling and hopes to join the City raider in the England starting line-upCredit: Rex Features
Knowing Uefa were now capable of pretty much anything — as they also proved by giving Baku this year’s Europa League final — the announcement of a new competition involving all of Europe’s 55 member nations was met with indifference and a shrug of the shoulders.
A real tournament but not real a tournament. Four divisions with promotion and relegation.
No celebrations if you go up, certainly no tears if you go down — and one team to get a trophy at the end of it all, at a venue to be decided.
Yes, it sounded proper crackpot.
Fast forward to the first finals of the Uefa Nations League in northern Portugal. The hosts face Switzerland in Porto tonight and England play Holland up the road in Guimaraes tomorrow.
Some football fans, understandably, still have no idea about what is actually going on and whether it means anything.
But if you ask those who have followed it closely, the Uefa Nations League has actually been a bit of a success.
The winners’ trophy is 71cm tall and weighs 7.5kg — but the weighting we should give a tournament branded “the most senseless competition” in the world by Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp is less clear.
Certainly the FA have been won over and they will bank £9.3million if Harry Kane and Co win it.
Uefa’s intention was to reduce friendlies and that has been achieved.
England’s game against the Dutch will be the fourth fixture of a ten-game run without a friendly, the previous one coming against the USA last November. The remaining matches in 2019 are competitive.
As for the Nations League, the celebrations both among the fans and players which greeted a 2-1 win over Croatia last November — thanks to Kane’s 85th-minute clincher — were as boisterous and noisy as anything we have seen at Wembley, certainly involving the national team.
There was also the 3-2 win over Spain in Seville, where England delivered arguably their finest 45 minutes of attacking football under Gareth Southgate.
Two goals from Raheem Sterling, one from Marcus Rashford and a brilliant No 9 display from Kane left the Spanish purring in admiration for our team, with the Three Lions 3-0 up at the break.
Even the Scots like the Nations League. They finished top in their League C group and could stumble into Euro 2020.
England, surely, will qualify directly and will not need the play-off spot which they secured by finishing top of their League A group.
Being the inaugural champions of this tournament will not get anywhere near erasing the pain of last year’s World Cup semi-final loss to the Croatians.
Only if England were to win next year’s European Championships at Wembley would it get anywhere close to the achievement of lifting the World Cup in 1966.
Equally, though, winning the Nations League would be more of an achievement than bagging the 1997 Tournoi de France when England finished top of a group also consisting of the hosts, Brazil and Italy.
Before then, there was the rather odd Rous Cup.
It was a short-lived tournament staged five times in the 1980s. For the first two years it was just between England and Scotland before three different South American teams were invited.
4 Raheem Sterling and England could be heading to the top of the European ratingsCredit: Rex Features
4 Raheem Sterling won the nation over by taking the Three Lions to the World Cup semi-finals in his first tournament – and is again two victories from gloryCredit: PA:Press Association
Chile competed in the 1989 version won by England before the tournament — which managed an attendance high of 92,000 for the Three Lions v Brazil in 1987 — was confined to the dustbin.
The Rous Cup was a sort of replacement for the much cherished and loved Home Championship.
England won this trophy 54 times — although 20 of those were shared — with Northern Ireland the last winners in 1984.
Many have yearned for regular matches between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland but the Home Championship was scrapped because of poor attendances and hooliganism.
The benefit of the Nations League is that teams play against other sides their own level.
Games have all been competitive and Southgate’s players are taking this seriously, make no mistake.
Skipper Kane, 25, has repeatedly stated his determination to add something to his trophy cabinet.
He said: “It’s not very often you have the chance to win a trophy in an England shirt.
If we have a good summer and win that trophy, in my eyes it’s a better year — 2018 was fantastic but the main thing for me is the team, trying to win things, and we have a chance this year.”
To end what has been a long season with a prize would cap another fine 12 months for Southgate and his men.

Regardless of the Nations League’s importance, a win in the final in Porto on Sunday evening would see England finish 2019 as the top-ranked team in Europe.
Surely, even the most negative football fan must accept that this counts for something. Even if — after the first Uefa Nations League is complete — they have yet to truly understand how it all works.
In the 2020-21 season, it happens all over again. Good luck . . .
Liverpool’s Champions League heroes Van Dijk and Wijnaldum given standing ovation as they join Holland squad for England game


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