The UEFA Nations League is back with six days of international football ahead
- England face tricky away trips to Croatia then Spain in elite League A
- Spain are the only side with 100 per cent record; France have four points
- Group winners enter Nations League finals, bottom-placed side is relegated
- Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland are chasing their first victories
- Wales and Scotland aiming to kick on following winning starts in their groups
The UEFA Nations League returns this week and the double-header of fixtures will help form a clearer picture of who is going to be promoted and who is going to be relegated.
The competition’s unique format brings the ups and downs of club football to the international arena and with many of the groups comprising just three teams, every game matters.
Ahead of six days of international fixtures, we take a look at the state of play in the Nations League.
The UEFA Nations League takes centre stage again this week as the internationals return
How are England getting on?
It wasn’t the best start for Gareth Southgate’s team in the Nations League as they were defeated 2-1 by Spain at Wembley last month.
Although Marcus Rashford gave England the perfect start after just 11 minutes, Saul Niguez levelled just a couple of minutes later before Rodrigo Moreno took advantage of some slack marking to score a second-half winner.
There was an element of controversy, with England seeing a late equaliser disallowed after Danny Welbeck was adjudged to have fouled David de Gea.
It was England’s first competitive defeat at Wembley since November 2007 – a run of 24 matches – and Spain then went on to thrash World Cup finalists Croatia 6-0 to take command of the group.
There was disappointment for England in their Nations League opener as they lost to Spain
England will be hoping for better fortunes when they travel to Croatia and Spain this week
Spain have taken command of League Four with victories over England and Croatia last month
League A, Group Four
September 8 – England 1 Spain 2
September 11 – Spain 6 Croatia 0
October 12 – Croatia vs England
October 15 – Spain vs England
November 15 – Croatia vs Spain
November 18 – England vs Croatia
Spain have the maximum six points from their opening two games and are on course to qualify for the Nations League final in June next year.
But with the team that finished bottom of the group suffering relegation from the elite League A to the less glamorous League B for the next Nations League, this Friday’s meeting of Croatia and England in Rijeka is all-important.
At present, both teams are pointless, with Croatia bottom by virtue of their worse goal difference following that six-goal thrashing.
But if they beat England on Friday, the Three Lions will be in serious trouble, especially as they then travel to Seville to take on in-form Spain on Monday night.
Saul Niguez celebrates scoring Spain’s first goal as they defeated England at Wembley
Spain then crushed Croatia 6-0 to take command of England’s Nations League group
England will play Croatia behind closed doors at the Stadion HNK Rijeka on Friday night
Something playing into England’s hands as they take on their conquerors in the semi-finals of the World Cup is that the match will be played behind closed doors.
That is because Croatia are serving a UEFA punishment after a swastika was marked on their pitch before a Euro 2016 qualifier against Italy in June 2015.
The Football Association have advised England supporters not to travel because they won’t be allowed access to the stadium but some are likely to chance their arm anyway.
With Spain romping away with Group Four, the return meeting between England and Croatia at Wembley on November 18 could well become a relegation six-pointer.
What about the other elite groups?
World champions France have made a bright start to their group, drawing 0-0 away to Germany and then defeating Holland 2-1 in Paris last month.
They’ll take a back seat on Saturday as Holland host Germany in Amsterdam, before they host the Germans at the Stade de France on Tuesday evening.
Win that game and France will be truly in the box seat to reach the final four, leaving Holland and Germany to slug it out to avoid dropping into the second tier.
Antoine Griezmann (left), Kylian Mbappe (centre) and Paul Pogba celebrates as France beat Holland in the Nations League last month
Germany’s players train ahead of their Nations League match with Holland on Saturday night
France have started their group well, defeating Holland after drawing with Germany
League A, Group One
September 6 – Germany 0 France 0
September 9 – France 2 Holland 1
October 13 – Holland vs Germany
October 16 – France vs Germany
November 16 – Holland vs France
November 19 – Germany vs Holland
All to play for in Group Two, where Switzerland and Belgium started with victories over Iceland during last month’s fixtures.
The Swiss thrashed Iceland 6-0 in St Gallen before Belgium went to Reykjavik and won 3-0.
While Iceland look set to tumble into League B, we’ll know more about who will reach the play-offs after Belgium play Switzerland in Brussels on Friday night.
Romelu Lukaku celebrates after scoring in Belgium’s 3-0 Nations League win over Iceland
Switzerland thrashed Iceland 6-0 to take the early advantage in Group Two over Belgium
League A, Group Two
September 8 – Switzerland 6 Iceland 0
September 11 – Iceland 0 Belgium 3
October 12 – Belgium vs Switzerland
October 15 – Iceland vs Switzerland
November 15 – Belgium vs Iceland
November 18 – Switzerland vs Belgium
It appears that this group is going to be pretty open with little between the teams in the first two rounds of fixtures.
Italy and Poland drew 1-1 in Bologna before Portugal defeated Italy 1-0 in Lisbon a few days later to steal a march in the early running.
Things should take shape in the next week with Poland having the advantage of home fixtures against first Portugal and then Italy.
Action from the Portugal vs Italy Nations League encounter in Lisbon last month
Portugal defeated Italy to gain the early advantage in what is likely to be a tight Group Three
League A, Group Three
September 7 – Italy 1 Poland 1
September 10 – Portugal 1 Italy 0
October 11 – Poland vs Portugal
October 14 – Poland vs Italy
November 17 – Italy vs Portugal
November 20 – Portugal vs Poland
What’s the story in League B?
Like England, it was a losing start for Northern Ireland in the Nations League. They were beaten 2-1 at Windsor Park by Bosnia and Herzegovina, who then beat Austria to take early command of Group Three.
It means realistically, Michael O’Neill’s team need to get at least four points from their trips to Austria and Bosnia this week to stand any chance of joining the elite nations in League A next time.
Bosnia and Herzegovina celebrate scoring their winning goal against Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland have work to do in Group Three as they prepare to play Austria and Bosnia
Wales and the Republic of Ireland were paired together in Group Four and it was the Welsh who laid down an early marker with a 4-1 win in Cardiff.
However, Ryan Giggs’s team then suffered a 2-0 reverse in Denmark to leave them trailing the Danes narrowly on goal difference.
Ireland will try to resurrect their campaign with back-to-back home fixtures this week, starting with Denmark on Saturday and Wales next Tuesday.
Gareth Bale celebrates scoring as Wales beat the Republic of Ireland 4-1 last month
Wales defeated the Republic of Ireland in their opener but then lost against Denmark
League B, Group Three
September 8 – Northern Ireland 1 Bosnia 2
September 11 – Bosnia 1 Austria 0
October 12 – Austria vs Northern Ireland
October 15 – Bosnia vs Northern Ireland
November 15 – Austria vs Bosnia
November 18 – Northern Ireland vs Austria
League B, Group Four
September 6 – Wales 4 Republic of Ireland 1
September 9 – Denmark 2 Wales 0
October 13 – Republic of Ireland vs Denmark
October 16 – Republic of Ireland vs Wales
November 16 – Wales vs Denmark
November 19 – Denmark vs Republic of Ireland
How are Scotland faring in League C?
Scotland find themselves in the third tier of the Nations League and made a positive start with a 2-0 home win over Albania to put them top of the group.
Next up, they travel to Israel, who lost 1-0 to Albania in their opening game, on Thursday evening.
That is their only competitive fixture this time around, with a trip to Albania and the home match with Israel lying in store next month as they try to reach League B.
Steve Naismith is mobbed after scoring Scotland’s opening goal against Albania last month
Scotland beat Albania in their first Nations League game to take an early lead in Group One
League C, Group One
September 7 – Albania 1 Israel 0
September 10 – Scotland 2 Albania 0
October 11 – Israel vs Scotland
October 14 – Israel vs Albania
November 17 – Albania vs Scotland
November 20 – Scotland vs Israel
Confused? The UEFA Nations League explained
What is the Nations League all about?
UEFA have introduced this tournament to give national teams more competitive matches and fewer meaningless friendlies.
It has a group stage, a final tournament and a trophy for the winner.
What is the format?
The 55 European countries have been split into four leagues — A, B, C and D — based on their UEFA ranking.
As England are one of the 12 best-ranked sides, they are in League A.
Each league has been split into four mini-groups, with England pitted against Spain and Croatia in Group 4.
What happens if we win our group?
Top the group and England will advance to the Nations League finals with the three other group winners from League A.
In December, one of these four will be picked to host the final tournament.
In June 2019, the teams will take part in semi-finals and a final to crown the first Nations League champions.
But what if we finish bottom?
Finishing bottom would see England relegated to League B. For the likes of Wales and Northern Ireland who are in League B this year, winning their mini-group would mean promotion to League A.
There is also promotion and relegation between Leagues B-C and C-D.
Can teams qualify for Euro 2020 through the Nations League?
They can. Four teams will qualify via the Nations League play-offs and join the 20 teams who will take their places for Euro 2020 through a qualifying group as normal.
How do the play-offs work?
The four mini-group winners from each of the Nations League tiers — A, B, C and D — will contest a one-off semi-final, followed by a final, in March 2020.
The winners of the play-off final in each of the four leagues will then qualify for Euro 2020.
It means that if England beat Spain and Croatia to the top of their mini-group this autumn, they could still go on to claim a play-off place for Euro 2020 even if they mess up in their qualifying campaign next year.
What if England do not require the play-offs?
If England win their Nations League group this autumn but also finish in the top two of their qualifying group next year, their play-off place will go to the next best Nations League side who have not already qualified.