UEFA Nations League resumes amid COVID-19 fears: England need wins after off-field drama, Spain stress
The October international break is more congested than usual, as the soccer world adjusts to a compressed schedule by squeezing as many as three games into an eight-day sprint before players disperse and return to their clubs. There are travel concerns for all international teams as various players pull out of duty due to positive COVID-19 tests — including a spate of positives in the Liverpool squad — and issues with players joining up for their countries in South America due to ongoing coronavirus issues, but across Europe, there’s Nations League qualifying to navigate and plenty of storylines for the top countries.
– Watch UEFA Nations League LIVE on ESPN, ESPN+ (U.S.)
– UEFA Nations League: All you need to know
Here’s what is happening across the continent ahead of the action.
Why are the squads so big?
With international teams facing eight games in three days, a stretch that began with some friendlies on Wednesday, fans can expect to see plenty of juggling of resources and fresh faces. While usual breaks see national teams carrying 23 players for two matches, England have named a 30-man party for their three matches, while Scotland have also named a bigger squad than usual, with 26 called up for their triple-header against Israel (Euro 2020 playoff) and Nations League matches against Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
Notable first call-ups across the continent include red-hot Everton striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin (England), Arsenal‘s Bukayo Saka (England), 33-year-old striker Francesco Caputo (Italy — more on him later), Lyon‘s Houssem Aouar (France) and Dortmund midfielder Mahmoud Dahoud (Germany) as national team managers adjust to the realities of 2020.
“When you have so many big games in such a short space of time, it’s important to have extra players available,” Scotland manager Steve Clarke explained. “With the coronavirus, it’s a little bit more difficult to call people in and out of your protected bubble, so we decided to go with a slightly bigger squad.” (The durability of the “protected bubble” was later tested with Stuart Armstrong arriving in camp and returning a positive COVID-19 test and Kieran Tierney and Ryan Christie having to also self-isolate as “close contacts.”)
Germany have also gone with a 29-man squad, with some players — those from Bayern Munich and RB Leipzig — unavailable for Wednesday’s 3-3 friendly against Turkey, offering chances for the fringe members of the squad.
International managers face a difficult juggling act between short-term victories and maintaining important long-term relationships with club managers. Player welfare is paramount. Those at the clubs are already expressing their unease at the workload, with Tottenham’s Jose Mourinho calling on England to “respect the players” after a brutal start to their season in which Spurs played eight games in 22 days.
– Marcotti: Soccer faces tough road to 2022 World Cup
Causing further worry for club managers, like Liverpool‘s Jurgen Klopp, are the various logistical headaches they face ensuring their players get back home safely amid the differing COVID-19 protocols, the required testing and quarantine regulations. In short, it’s convoluted. — Tom Hamilton
England indiscipline helping mask bad form
Frank Lebeouf can’t understand why bookmakers have England at the shortest odds to win Euro 2020 next summer.
Gareth Southgate may have grown weary of dealing with off-field issues in the last few weeks, but one useful by-product has been to avoid detailed scrutiny of two underwhelming performances.
The build-up to Thursday’s game against Wales — 3 p.m. ET, ESPN+ — has been overshadowed by Jadon Sancho, Ben Chilwell and Tammy Abraham breaching coronavirus regulations to attend a party last weekend, just as last month’s matches were overtaken by events away from the pitch. Phil Foden and Mason Greenwood have been left out of this camp after arranging to meet two local women outside the bubble in the team hotel in Reykjavik hours after making their debuts against Iceland in September.
Along with Harry Maguire falling foul of Greek law while on holiday this summer, Southgate has faced the biggest spate of ill-discipline in his tenure, taking time out at St George’s Park this week to remind his players of their responsibilities. He even suggested such indiscretions could “derail” their efforts at future tournaments, but lost in the moral maze the 50-year-old has had to navigate were two poor displays against Iceland and Denmark.
England beat Iceland 1-0 before a goalless draw against Denmark, two results that leave them two points adrift of Belgium, who visit Wembley on Sunday. They had just six shots on target in those two games: one of those was Raheem Sterling‘s match-winning penalty in Iceland. The matches came prior to the start of the Premier League season and Southgate argued his players were consequently not fully fit given they were still in preseason at their clubs, but there is no such excuse now.
The friendly against Wales will stoke local rivalries as preparation for Nations League matches Belgium and Denmark.
England were outclassed by Belgium when they twice met at the 2018 World Cup, although one game featured two much-changed line-ups in a group stage match and the other came in a third/fourth place play-off which struggled to capture the imagination for either side. Belgium are the No.1 ranked side in the world according to FIFA and victory for England, currently in fourth, would put Southgate back on track on the pitch as well as off it. — James Olley
Giroud’s 100th cap the big story so far for France
ESPN FC’s Frank Leboeuf lauds fellow countryman Olivier Giroud for his strong work ethic.
Another international break means another eventful few days for France. This time, manager Didier Deschamps was able to have Paul Pogba and Houssem Aouar at Clairefontaine with the rest of the squad, after they missed out last month because of a positive test for COVID-19.
Aouar, as is the tradition for a first call-up, did his initiation song standing up on a chair in front of the whole squad and technical staff. The joy and happiness is very much present at the France HQ despite the fact that the virus is still tampering with Deschamps’ plans. This time, it’s Lyon right-back Leo Dubois who tested positive and had to leave. Adrien Rabiot is still there, but had to self-isolate because he was in contact with someone who contracted the virus — he had to miss Wednesday’s 7-1 friendly win over Ukraine.
As Olivier Giroud wakes up the morning after his Centenarian moment on Wednesday, where he became only the eighth player in history to reach 100 caps for France (after Lilian Thuram 142, Thierry Henry 123, Marcel Desailly and Hugo Lloris 116, Zinedine Zidane 108, Patrick Vieira 107 and Didier Deschamps 103), Les Bleus have also completed some other important business this week: the official team photo. They were wearing their new home shirt, inspired by the jersey the team wore in 1984 when they won the Euros on home soil.
Deschamps and the players are hoping this will be a good omen for the 2021 Euros this summer. Of the 23 players on the photo though, how many will make the squad for that competition? — Julien Laurens
Spain have selection stress in goal, up front
Sid Lowe marvels at Adama Traore’s impact in his first international action with Spain.
“I’d love to have Harry Kane at his best, or Luis Suárez or Van Basten, any coach would, but we don’t…” Luis Enrique said. Spain, though, do have reasons to be cheerful, and more reasons than most anticipated when the coach, back in the job a year on, named his first post-lockdown squad.
At the time, the list looked a little underwhelming. Now, while there are gaps still, the performances have been promising and this appears a stronger side. It’s also a “foreign” one: against Portugal in a friendly on Wednesday night, Spain started with just four players from La Liga. Leeds United had as many as Madrid and Barcelona put together.
In the first half-hour, Spain were so good that Javier Mascherano tweeted emojis with stars in their eyes. Dominating the ball and pressing very high, they didn’t allow their opponents out. Fernando Santos called it “torture.”
“They kept arriving, kept creating danger, and wouldn’t let us play our game,” he said.
Thing is, it finished 0-0. “A crime,” according to Luis Enrique, considering the chances his side had had. The best of them had actually been for Portugal, who rattled two shots off the underside of the bar. By then, Spain had lost control of the game, some of the doubts appearing again.
It wasn’t until Adama Traore came on for his senior international debut that Spain started to threaten again, opponents bouncing off him and his direct running introducing a different element to the game and suggesting that he may become a fixture. “Spain have muscle,” one headline said.
Luis Enrique says that Spain have the “best midfield in the world,” but the concerns about the goalkeepers remain — Kepa Arrizabalaga and David De Gea are both under pressure. It’s also not certain who the other centre-back will be alongside Sergio Ramos (173 caps), and there isn’t an obvious No.9, something which makes Iago Aspas‘s absence from the squad all the more surprising.
Rodrigo and Gerard Moreno will play a part for Spain in their Nations League matches, while Marco Asensio, Dani Olmo, and Ferran Torres will have roles in those wide attacking positions, too. Luis Enrique has also been thinking about using Ansu Fati — the player most exciting everyone right now — as a central striker. But the Spain coach insists: “We won’t build a system just for him. The team is above all else.
We wouldn’t be doing him any favours if we think he is going to resolve every game for us.” — Sid Lowe
Caputo proving age just a number for Italy
In an Italian side packed with creativity, there’s still an active search for that killer instinct in front of goal. Andrea Belotti is the current prime candidate to start up front, while Ciro Immobile — scoring goals for fun at Lazio in recent seasons — is still unfancied by Roberto Mancini.
Then again, there’s another option: 33-year-old Francesco Caputo.
Caputo is ruthless in front of goal and a fantasy league manager’s dream as he is perennially under-rated at Sassuolo. He is Italy’s answer to Jamie Vardy. Having cut his teeth in unfancied clubs lower down the standings, Caputo exploded into life with Sassuolo last season and finished fourth in the top scorer standings last season with 21 Serie A goals. He has a habit of scoring with his first touch and has the finisher’s instinct that’s evaded the Azzurri in recent years.
“It has been my dream from childhood that I will continue to pursue while I’m playing, up to the last moment,” he said back in June. It would be some story if he gets his debut in Italy’s forthcoming Nations League matches against Poland and the Netherlands. Just two years ago he was in Serie B, and now he’s spearheading a Sassuolo side that plays some of the best football in Serie A alongside Atalanta.
Like Luca Toni before him, Caputo is living proof you don’t have to be at one of the top Italian sides to deliver goals. Though he won’t be Italy’s oldest debutant — that honour goes to centre-back Emiliano Moretti who was 33 years and 160 days when he made his debut in 2014, while Caputo is merely is 33 years and 62 days old as of Wednesday — it still tugs at the heart strings of all footballing romantics out there.
Better yet, his debut on Wednesday night, leading the attack for experimental Italy team without Napoli or Juventus players — had the perfect ending: he scored his first international goal after 23 minutes in a 6-0 win over Moldova. — Tom Hamilton
Germany struggling to entertain
Steve Nicol says that despite Kai Havertz’s two assists vs. Turkey, the German remained “in and out” of the match.
Early Wednesday morning, police raided the German FA (DFB) headquarters as well as the homes of officials in search of documents related to tax evasion in 2014 and 2015 regarding pitch-side advertisement boards. It was yet another blow for the DFB and its new leadership, under president Fritz Keller, and a sign of more difficult times for the association amid an already difficult time for the sport amid a global pandemic.
TV ratings for national team games have been below 10 million viewers at peak for the past 10 matches before Wednesday’s friendly against Turkey, a 3-3 draw secured by the visitors in the last minute of stoppage time. Expectations for the match were already low: there was nothing to play for, talk of scandal for the German FA dominated the media cycle and Bayern stars like Joshua Kimmich, Serge Gnabry and Manuel Neuer were absent, too. Less than six million people considered the six-goal thriller worth watching.
Stream UEFA Nations League LIVE on ESPN, ESPN+ (U.S.)
– Ukraine vs. Germany, Sat. 10/10, 2.45 p.m. ET
– Germany vs. Switzerland, Tues. 10/13, 2.45 p.m. ET
Coach Joachim Low had decided to hand the Bayern Munich players, as well as most of the RB Leipzig contingent, a break. With Toni Kroos and Timo Werner also not suiting up for the friendly because of injury and illness, former world class midfielder turned pundit Lothar Matthaus fired shots against the Germany boss.
“I am astonished to see that many players who are benched at their clubs, like Nico Schulz, take to the pitch for Germany,” Matthaus told Bild. “That is the reason why nobody turns on the TV for Germany anymore.”
That, however, might be just one of the reasons for the country’s apparent withdrawal of affection for the national team, which has turned into a scapegoat for the rising discontent with the over-commercialization of football. The DFB and Germany national team director Oliver Bierhoff have yet to come up with an answer in their quest to make the Nationalmannschaft attractive to the masses again. With the pandemic putting an end to public training sessions, they have now turned to television to reach their fans.
On Monday, sandwiched between the two Nations League ties against Ukraine and Switzerland, some Germany stars including Kimmich, Leon Goretzka and keeper Kevin Trapp will take the hot seat in a “Who Wants To Be Millionaire” special. The show still is one of the most popular game shows on German TV, but whether it will help the cause is still very much open. Initial reactions have been far from favourable across the country. — Stephan Uersfeld.
A new era for the Netherlands?
Shaka Hislop wonders if the Netherlands’ loss to Mexico is a sign of them slumping under new coach Frank De Boer.
The Oranje‘s new era under Frank de Boer began this week, with the former Atlanta United FC, Crystal Palace and Ajax manager making very few changes from the Ronald Koeman regime. “Who would I be to throw the bat in the chicken coop?” he asked rhetorically last week.
So, in the short term, as they move ahead from a 1-0 friendly defeat vs. Mexico — Wolves’ Raul Jimenez scored the only goal, from the penalty spot — and prepare for Nations League matches against Bosnia and Italy, expect continuation over any drastic revolution. With PSV’s superb striker Donyell Malen back from injury and AZ Alkmaar‘s Teun Koopmeiners earning his first call-up, De Boer has put the tiniest of fingerprints on his 25-man squad.
Stream UEFA Nations League LIVE on ESPN, ESPN+ (U.S.)
– Bosnia & Herzegovina vs. Netherlands, Sun. 10/11, Noon ET
– Italy vs. Netherlands, Weds. 10/14, 2.45 p.m. ET
Ultimately, after a week of evaluation and three challenging fixtures, you’re more likely to see a clearer indication of what side he’ll mould in his squad announcement ahead of the next batch of Nations League matches in November.
There are still some notable absentees and inclusions. PSV forward Cody Gakpo and Feyenoord goalkeeper Justin Bijlow are still absent despite a growing clamour for their inclusion, while PSV’s young midfielder, Mohamed Ihattaren, is out through injury. Kevin Strootman keeps his spot — despite being on the bench for Marseille in their past three games — with De Boer citing his leadership qualities, and it’s clear De Boer is leaning heavily on the current knowledge base within the Oranje set-up as he settles in ahead of next summer’s rescheduled Euros. He admitted earlier in the week that he’s consulted Virgil Van Dijk for his thoughts on the squad, but looking to the long-term, De Boer is going to change very little.
“It is logical that you do not start experimenting immediately if you are national coach for such a short time,” he said. “I will first take a look at what will happen in the coming days. And that is why the KNVB has also chosen me: because they want to continue on the same line as under Koeman.” — Tom Hamilton