With all of Europe’s top leagues now underway, international soccer returns as well. The COVID-19 pandemic means these matches will undoubtedly be different from those of past seasons due to a multitude of factors: empty stadiums, lackluster atmospheres, lack of fitness due to shortened pre-seasons and players getting situated at new clubs. Amidst friendlies and European Championship qualifiers, the highlight of this international break is the UEFA Nations League.
Originally introduced by UEFA to add a competitive edge to international friendlies, the Nations League splits Europe’s top 55 teams into four leagues: League A (#1-16), League B (#17-32), League C (#33-48) and League D (#49-55). Within each league, teams are further divided into two groups (League D) or four groups (Leagues A, B and C). Teams in each group play each other home and away. After these fixtures, the four group winners of League A qualify for the UEFA Nations League Finals, a traditional playoff style tournament. The winner of this tournament is crowned the winner of the UEFA Nations League. The winners in Leagues B, C and D gain promotion to higher leagues and those who finish bottom of their groups in Leagues A and B get relegated.
The following week will be Matchday 3 and 4 of the Nations League, where teams will continue to compete for the playoff berths. These are the games to keep an eye on in the coming week.
England vs. Belgium (10/11)
The No. 1 ranked team in the world meets a refreshed England squad in a highly anticipated Group A2 matchup. A win would see England take first place in the group, while a Belgian victory would give Robert Martinez’s men a five-point cushion. Belgian’s No. 1 Thibaut Courtois has been deemed unfit to play after suffering a hip injury. Meanwhile, Mason Greenwood and Phil Foden were left out of the England squad, after violating COVID-19 restrictions during the last international break. Stars Tammy Abraham, Ben Chilwell and Jadon Sancho will also not be available, after breaching COVID-19 restrictions by attending a private party. Meanwhile, Premier League stand-out performers Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Harvey Barnes and Bukayo Saka have earned the opportunity to play their first games for the Three Lions.
Poland vs. Italy (10/11)
Italy enters this match at first place in Group A1 with four points, with Poland in third place with three points. Kamil Grosicki scored a hat trick in a 5-1 demolition of Finland this past week. Arkadiusz Milk and Krzysztof Piątek will also be players to watch for Poland. The Azzurri remain unbeaten in the UEFA Nations League and put six goals past Moldova in a friendly this past week. In this match, Stephan El Shaarawy managed to score a brace. Francesco Caputo, the second oldest-ever debutant for Italy at the age of 33, grabbed a goal as well.
France vs. Portugal (10/11)
In a rematch of the 2016 European Championship finals, world champions France face Nations League title holders Portugal. France look in fine form, coming off a 7-1 friendly win against Ukraine. 17-year-old Rennes midfielder Eduardo Camavinga scored an outstanding goal in this win, becoming France’s youngest goal scorer in a century. RB Leipzig’s Dayot Upamecano also earned a first call-up to the national team after impressing in last year’s Champions League campaign. On the other hand, Portugal are led by the legendary Cristiano Ronaldo, who is looking to score his 100th goal for Portugal. Barcelona’s new signing, Francisco Trincão, has earned a spot in the team as well and will look to impress.
Italy vs. Netherlands (10/14)
The Netherlands and Italy meet in Italy in a rematch of Matchday 2, during which Italy nudged out the Netherlands 1-0, thanks to a Nicolò Barella goal. As mentioned before, Italy enters this match in first place of Group A1, with the Netherlands a point behind them in second place. While the Azzurri are coming off a one-sided match against Moldova, the Netherlands most recently suffered a 1-0 loss to Mexico. The Netherlands were finalists in the 2018-19 playoff tournament and will look to bounce back with a big win against Italy.
Croatia vs. France (10/14)
Croatia and France face off in Zagreb, a match up we last saw in the 2018 World Cup final in Russia. France enter this game as heavy favorites, with two wins out of two so far in the Nations League. Deschamps boasts an incredibly deep squad, with the likes of Kylian Mbappé, Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann and N’Golo Kanté. Olivier Giroud continues to cement his status as a French legend, having passed Michel Platini to become France’s second top scorer with 42 goals. For Croatia, Ivan Perišić will be the player to watch, having played in two out of three opening games for Inter Milan, coming off a season-long loan at Champions League winners Bayern Munich during the 2019-20 season.