Tag: Football

England win UEFA Nations League group in a thrilling game against Croatia

England came from behind against Croatia to win both the match and their group in the thrilling final game of the UEFA Nations League Group Stage. The victory sends the Three Lions through to the Semi-Finals of the competition which take place next June. 

Croatia, the side which sent England home from the World Cup this summer, looked as though they would win yet again after Andrej Kramaric scored for the visitors in the 57th minute. Kramaric, who plays his club football with Hoffenheim in the Bundesliga, seemed to have an eternity to shoot. When he finally picked his spot his attempt was deflected off Eric Dier’s thigh past a diving Jordan Pickford.

The scoreline didn’t reflect the football being played as England were dominating in terms of chances but couldn’t seem to convert them into goals. Croatia, on the other hand, managed to find the back of the net with their first effort on target. If the result stayed the same England would have been relegated to Group B of the Nations League. 

Gareth Southgate was determined to make sure his side wouldn’t be lumped together with other poor international sides such as Germany, falling from the upper echelon of European football that is the Nations League Division A. He brought on Dele Alli early on in the second half before making a double substitution ten minutes later with in-form Jadon Sancho and Jesse Lingard coming on.

These substitutions proved pivotal in the England comeback. Jesse Lingard tapped home an equaliser with 12 minutes of ordinary time left before Harry Kane scored from a Ben Chilwell free kick. The Croatian side was stunned. In seven minutes they had gone from topping the group to being relegated.

The atmosphere around Wembley was electric. Every one of the 78,221 knew exactly what those two late goals meant. Not only did we save ourselves from embarrassing relegation, not only did we top our group and progress to the Semi-Finals next June, but we took revenge on a Croatian side that ended our World Cup dreams, relegating them in the process. It doesn’t stop the hurt, but it certainly helps.

To add insult to injury for Croatia, the now iconic ‘3 Lions (Football’s Coming Home)’ anthem rang around the ground as the final whistle blew. We may not have won the world cup be we still have a chance of winning the inaugural UEFA Nations League. The newest, and some would argue most elite, international competition there is.

Talking about the victory after the game, Southgate said “I think the most pleasing thing of the year has been the connection with the fans and being able to share brilliant experiences with them. Today was brilliant, I can’t remember the new Wembley like that. We have exciting players that give them excitement.”

“We were by far the better team in the first half and we came back from a soft goal. If you’re going to win a game that’s the way you want to win. We were playing against a very, very good side. To keep the ball, use the ball and create chances was very pleasing. And you have to keep calm, when you think the chances have gone then you have to keep believing.”

Goalkeeper Jordan Pickford echoed his manager’s sentiments saying “the atmosphere is probably the best we’ve had at Wembley. This Nations League makes you want to beat the best. We’ve beaten two of the top 10 sides in the world. Now we have another semi-final, it’ll be a good summer.”

Elsewhere in Division A of the Nations League, three more teams joined England in the Semi-Finals and three more joined Croatia in Division B. Netherlands stunned everyone by taking 7 points from a possible 12 and topping a group which included France and Germany. As previously mentioned Germany, who underperformed massively at the world cup, continued their run of poor form winning none of their four games.

Switzerland took the third spot in the Semi-Finals topping their group on goal difference, Iceland finished rock bottom there on 0 points. Finally the fourth spot went to Portugal who went undefeated in their group, while Poland also failed to register a win.

So, England knows their opponents: Portugal, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. All eyes now turn to the draw that takes place in Dublin on December 3rd. There the match times, venues and fixtures will be announced. If England wants to win their first major trophy since 1966, they will need to win two more games. 

Southgate and his players will be confident that they have a good chance of lifting the inaugural Nations League trophy, an achievement that will surely cement Southgate as one of the greatest managers ever to grace the beautiful game. 

Joking aside, there is no doubt that this England side is the most promising we have seen in many, many years. We have young players, talented players, playing as a team, not as individuals. Players who want to represent their country, who are proud of what that means.

James Richardson: “The staple of English pundits that float around don’t really have any expertise to bring to it”

James Richardson is a football broadcaster, podcast host, and journalist who specialises in Italian league Serie A. His love for all things Italian was sparked by a girl he met in Rome, 1990, which resulted in him learning the language and the league. That girl started a chain of events ultimately creating one of the greatest football shows of all time, Channel 4’s Football Italia.

26 years after it debuted, Football Italia still holds a place in the hearts of those who watched it every week. “There were a unique combination of circumstances in the early 90’s that caused it to be successful and the biggest factor of them all was Paul Gascoigne. Everyone was desperate to see just how he would get on in Italy.” Says Richardson.

“On one hand, because it was the biggest test an English footballer could have at the time and secondly because he hadn’t played anywhere in 18 months.” Gascoigne missed the entire 1991/92 season after suffering a ruptured cruciate ligament in his right knee while playing for Tottenham Hotspur. During his recovery, there was a media circus about whether he would sign for Italian club Lazio or not, which he eventually did for £5.5 million.

“We were all really interested to see how he would do, whether he was still Gazza. So you have that and the fact that it was essentially the only football that was on TV because Sky had just taken the English First Division away.”

“It was also in Italy where we had just had a really successful World Cup with Italia 90. There was a great vibe around those stadiums, those same grounds where we had seen the World Cup take place. All the big stars of that World Cup were still playing there. It felt almost like a window into another world of football.”

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“You wouldn’t have those things now, not least because everyone’s schedule is saturated by football.” That certainly is one of the difficulties for the modern football fan, a wealth of options and limited time makes it difficult to know what to watch. “I think certainly for Football Italia, doing a proper highlights show with context of who these players are and what these games mean is something that we really don’t see all that much of on TV [nowadays].”

“We don’t get a proper Spanish show or a proper Italian show. We were doing something along those lines on BT with the European Football Show before it was cancelled, but there will always be a place for a show like Football Italia.”

Nowadays you can find Richardson on BT Sport’s Champions League Goals Show. Hosted on BT Sport 1 it has a panel of experts, one for each of the top European leagues, who watch all the night’s games giving opinions and analysis on the action as it happens. The most attractive aspect of the show is that every goal is shown, allowing the viewer to have a rounded knowledge of the week’s action.

Having a panel of experts rather than pundits was something Richardson was adamant about from the outset. “Whilst a former pro can give you a unique insight on how to play the game, when you’re dealing with foreign matches there is no point in having someone with only a cursory knowledge, or someone who has just read some research notes into a fixture. They won’t be able to give you anything beyond truisms, whereas an expert or journalist will be able to really bring you information that you wouldn’t otherwise get.”

“Unless the pundit is someone who has maybe played at that club ten years before, most of the time you’ll be giving them more information than they are giving you, which is not really the right dynamic for pre-game or post-game analysis. I’m really a strong believer that pundits can be ex-players, only ex-players can know what it’s like to be on the pitch, but equally, in terms of summing up a game it’s not like they are the only one who can do it.”

“If you were to buy a newspaper and all the match reports were written by ex-pros, I don’t know how much fun that would be. We trust journalists to do the job of reporting and analysing in print and in other forms of media so why punditry should only be the province of former players is something that I’m not clear on.”

“I guess that’s just the way it’s always been done but particularly as I say with foreign matches, the staple of English pundits that float around don’t really have any expertise to bring to it. It made total sense to use people that actually know and understand what these games are and BT was completely on board with that.”

With the results of the show being so positive there have been calls to introduce experts and journalists to other programs such as Match of the Day. “I think everyone in the country has a view on what they would do if they were in charge of it and it’s difficult because it kind of belongs to everyone.”

“Equally it’s extremely difficult to plot an editorial course that’s going to upset the least amount of people, but I do think you could do that more with shows like that. It is a show that, in as much as they try and do other things, has a lot of things they haven’t tried to do yet.”

Another potential opportunity is for Match of the Day, highlight type, shows of different European leagues. “I think one of the issues is an audience for that because things are getting increasingly fragmented. Sky did have the rights for La Liga and then they, for whatever reason, decided it wasn’t a viable thing. BT got rid of the European Football Show and I guess [the] audience was probably a significant reason for that.”

“I think now that everyone watches television on demand it means that people can catch up whenever they want. So I absolutely think there is room for a highlights show for things like the Italian and Spanish leagues. Everyone loves to see Italian or Spanish goals but most people would struggle to find 90 minutes of their Saturday or Sunday night to sit down and watch two foreign teams in a league which they might not have too much skin in themselves.”

“A properly put together and explained highlights show though is always something that will be popular, perhaps even more so than the live games.”

With BBC, BT Sport, Sky, and now Eleven Sports owning rights to different leagues it is becoming increasingly difficult, and expensive, to keep up to date with what’s going on regardless of the format. “You need three subscriptions now to watch the biggest leagues. I think it must be really hard for the average viewer. It costs me a fortune but then it’s kind of what I do anyway.”

“Then again if you go back 20 or 30 years nobody really expected to be able to watch all of these things on TV. We had a brief period in which suddenly there was everything all over the place and now we are reverting to an era in which you maybe specialise in one league. There’s no question about it though, it is frustrating for a lot of people to not be able to follow the sport they love in different countries.”

The UEFA Nations League Explained

The World Cup may be over but this week saw the start of a new chapter in international footballing competition: the UEFA Nations League. But what actually is it? How does it work? And does it even make sense?

The Nations League is a brand new European competition. The idea, UEFA says, is that adding a new trophy and route for qualifying to the Euros will make international breaks a bit less tedious and the quality higher. The competition will be played every 2 years and will replace some existing friendlies. Although others sadly remain.

The 55 UEFA teams are split into four divisions: A (12 teams), B (12 teams), C (15 teams), and D (16 teams). This is done based on their coefficient. For those who don’t know what the coefficients are, every other year in November, UEFA releases their rankings (coefficients) for their comprising countries based upon their performances in friendlies as well as the last major tournament, if the team was present. Still following?

Each of those four divisions is then further split into four groups of either three or four teams depending on division size. So we have A1-4, B1-4 etc etc. Now to the actual games. Each team will play the others in their group twice, once at home, and once away. These games will be played in September, October, and November 2018. After all those games have been played, those that top their group in divisions B, C, and D will be promoted to the next division up, while those that finish bottom of their groups in divisions A, B, and C will be relegated to the division below.

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That is the end of phase one of the competition, and will be for most nations, the end of the journey for another two years. In June 2019 though, phase two begins. The four teams that topped their group in division A will go the UEFA Nations League Finals. Rather than a round robin style competition to decide the winner, the teams will be drawn into two semi-finals. The winners of each game will progress to the final, and those that lose will play in the third place playoff. Finally, whoever wins the final will be crowned the winners of the inaugural UEFA Nations League.

But wait, there’s more. The Nations League will also allow for another passage of entry into Euro 2020 besides the traditional qualifiers. The 16 group winners will go to the playoffs to play for the final four Euro places. Those teams will be divided into groups by division, so the division one group winners play each other and so on. Again, rather than a round robin this will be done as drawn as two semi-finals then a final. The teams that emerge victorious will gain a place in Euro 2020. It’s getting a bit confusing now isn’t it?

I can hear your questions now, ‘but James, what if the team that wins their group has already qualified for the Euro’s via the traditional route?’. Well, in that case, the next highest ranked team in the division, not the group, will get a place. You read that right, a team in a different group will get the place over a team in that same group if they are ranked higher.

‘But James, what happens if all 12 teams in division A qualify via the traditional route? Where do those four places in the playoffs go?’. A great question, and one where the answer isn’t clear. The emerging consensus is that the four best ranked teams in division B who didn’t win their group would get places, making it eight teams out of 12 in division B getting places in the playoffs.

It would seem then, that division B is the best place to be in terms of probability for making the Euros through the playoffs. The chances of this scenario are very unlikely though, as there is inevitably at least one major team that suffers a pitiful qualifying campaign and crashes out. Italy and the Netherlands are the obvious examples from the last World Cup.

UEFA’s hopes though, are that if a major footballing nation fails to qualify through the traditional route they can have a second chance in the playoffs if they top their group, or if they don’t top their group but the team that does win their group has already qualified and if all the higher ranked teams in their division have already qualified or received a place in the playoff from being the next highest ranked team after a team that finished top of their group had already qualified in the traditional qualifying so that they are next in line for a place.

If you’ve read all that and you’re still confused, join the club.