Tag Archives: UEFA Nations League

Italy control Belgium with Federico Chiesa and Nico Barella shining again

Italy got back to winning ways with a 2-1 win over Belgium in Turin to secure third place in the UEFA Nations League.

The European champions were beaten in the semi-finals by an organised and youthful Spain side in midweek, and took part in this fixture with a much changed lineup from that game.

22-year-old Gianluigi Donnarumma was named captain, with both sides missing key players from their team in a fixture that Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois labelled ‘pointless’ following their defeat to France in the other semi-final.

But it was the new generation of Italian stars that shone brightest, with Nico Barella opening the scoring with a beautiful volley just after half-time following a half-cleared corner kick.

The other star of the show was Federico Chiesa, as the Juventus winger won a penalty after a great run drew the foul from Timothy Castagne and allowed Domenico Berardi to tuck home from the spot.

Both players are still in their early 20’s and have recently seen a big change in their roles and responsibilities at both club and international level, becoming key players in Serie A.

But while Italy’s squad is full of experienced professionals such as Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini, Marco Verratti and Lorenzo Insigne it’s the new blood that have brought the hunger and quality to the side to blend in and make them a real force once again.

Nicolo Barella of Italy celebrates with team-mates after scoring the opening goal during the UEFA Nations League 2021 Third Place Match between Italy...

Barella and Chiesa represent both the present and future of the national team, with the Inter Milan central midfielder a potential future captain in the making.

He has a bite to his game that means he will never be physically bullied on the pitch, but he also has supreme technical quality on the ball that means he is capable of playing in all types of teams.

In a similar way to Arturo Vidal, Antonio Conte helped to mould Barella into a goal threat too and he now has seven goals in 33 internationals with four of those coming in the last 13 months.

Chiesa on the other hand is the man, along with Paulo Dybala, who has been elevated in the Juventus squad to replace Cristiano Ronaldo and he is becoming a world-renowned name following his performances at Euro 2020 and in Serie A.

His pace, directness, goal threat and creativity mean he will undoubtedly become the face of the national team in the coming years and at only 23-years-old there is plenty of room for improvement too.

It’s a great reaction to their first defeat in over three years and shows that even against top opposition, the squad is strong enough to compete and the young players are ready to step into senior roles.

Karim Benzema is the best player in the world right now

When you judge the intangibles of football, often these things can come down to preference.

Whether you prefer a powerhouse, a technical clinic, or a fine mixture of both can often decide who you believe to be the best when comparing top talents that are immeasurable.

One thing that is measurable though, even without stats, is how a player affects football matches in a positive way for his team.

As it stands right now in the world of top level football, there is one man doing that more than any other and his name is Karim Benzema.

The Real Madrid striker was firmly in the shadow of Cristiano Ronaldo for many years at the Bernabeu, while a legal case saw his time with Les Bleus cut short too.

But over the last 12 months it’s hard to argue that there has been a footballer on planet Earth more influential than the 33-year-old.

It wasn’t long ago that I wrote an article pleading for people to start giving Benzema his flowers for his fine form since the departure of his Portuguese strike partner.

Karim Benzema of France scores their side's first goal whilst under pressure from Cesar Azpilicueta of Spain during the UEFA Nations League 2021...

But in the last 12 months in particular he has improved even further and gone up another level, to the point where the French national team couldn’t overlook him anymore.

Benzema was the stand-out player for France as they crashed out of Euro 2020 earlier than expected, but he then started the season for Real Madrid on fire as the main man once again.

With no more Sergio Ramos and Marcelo relegated to fourth-choice left-back under Carlo Ancelotti, Benzema is now the regular captain of the side.

He’s not the same type of leader as Ramos, but he’s been just as effective. He’s built an excellent partnership with Brazilian winger Vinicius Jr and has put the team on his shoulders, with a breathtaking ten goals and seven assists in ten games so far this season.

He continued that into the UEFA Nations League with France, as he grabbed the team by the scruff of the neck in the semi-final and final as they became the first team to win all three major international honours.

In the semi-final at 2-0 down to Belgium, it was he he stepped up in a team of superstars and led by example. A brilliant bit of individual skill created a yard of space before he smashed the ball into the far corner to start the comeback.

Then in the final, in a tight affair between two top quality teams, moments after going 1-0 down it was Benzema again who collected the ball out wide, skipped past a defender and curled a wonder strike into the top corner.

Karim Benzema of France celebrates his team's second goal during the UEFA Nations League Final match between the Spain and France at San Siro Stadium...

It was just another moment of a glorious career but more importantly a glorious year.

Don’t talk to me about Lionel Messi. Don’t talk to me about Cristiano Ronaldo. Don’t talk to me about Kylian Mbappe, Neymar, Erling Haaland, Robert Lewandowski or Kevin De Bruyne. Karim Benzema is the best player in the world right now.

Manchester United fans panic as Raphael Varane injured for France

Manchester United defender Raphael Varane has sparked panic among supporters after he was substituted for France with an injury.

Varane started in the centre of a back three for the reigning World champions in their UEFA Nations League final against Spain. But after 41 minutes a ball was played over the top and replays showed the 28-year-old grimace with pain.

The former Real Madrid man went down with the ball out of play and after a short period of treatment from the medical staff was immediately substituted, with Bayern Munich defender Dayot Upamecano replacing him.

While the injury wasn’t clear and there was no coming together with another player, Varane was then shown on the bench by Sky cameras with an ice pack strapped to his right thigh.

That would suggest a muscle injury and would likely mean he would miss at least a few weeks if the problem is as bad as it seems.

That is awful news for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side, with captain Harry Maguire already out injured with a calf problem picked up against Aston Villa in the Premier League.

That would leave Victor Lindelof, Eric Bailly and Phil Jones as the only fit centre-back options, with the Ivorian playing just once and Jones yet to feature for the first-team this season.

United’s upcoming fixture schedule is incredibly tough, starting with Leicester at the King Power Stadium next weekend.

They then have back-to-back games at Old Trafford against Atalanta in the Champions League before a huge clash with rivals Liverpool the following weekend.

They then travel to north London to take on Tottenham Hotspur before the return fixture against Atalanta in Europe, before finally taking on Manchester City at Old Trafford on November 6th.

Belgium the perennial underachievers again as Eden Hazard’s decline continues

Belgium continued their winless golden era as they blew a 2-0 lead to world champions France as they crashed out of the UEFA Nations League in the semi-final stage.

Yannick Carrasco and Romelu Lukaku gave Roberto Martinez’s side a 2-0 lead at half-time as the Red Devils turned in a very solid display in the first half. The second half however was a completely different story, with France dominating.

Karim Benzema pulled one back after great work and link-up with Kylian Mbappe, before the PSG man equalised from the spot just minutes later. Lukaku thought he had won it for Belgium late on but a marginal offside call was made by VAR, before Theo Hernandez slammed in a late winner for the world champions.

It marked yet another occasion that Belgium, who have been ranked as the number one team in the world by FIFA since 2018, failed to reach a major final in an international tournament.

It’s supposed to be their golden generation too, with all of Thibaut Courtois, Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen, Axel Witsel, Youri Tielemans, Yannick Carrasco, Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku part of the squad on a regular basis over the last few years.

But once again they have failed to deliver, and their poor performance in the end was summed up by their influential captain Hazard’s lack of form.

The former Chelsea man has been a shadow of himself since moving to Real Madrid in the summer of 2019 for £100m, with persistent injuries and a lack of quality in his game.

It showed once again here as the skipper lacked his trademark explosion away from defenders, often slowing the game to a walking pace. His passing was off, his creativity non-existent and Belgium essentially played with ten in attack while he was on the pitch.

Real Madrid have managed to win La Liga without him and Karim Benzema is still flourishing. His new partnership with Mbappe at international level will only have Real Madrid’s board scratching their heads at the point of keeping Hazard around next summer if he doesn’t quickly improve.

As for Belgium, it was more of the same. Their individual quality comes through in drips and drabs and against most teams they are able to tear teams apart, but against sides that can match them for quality they seem to crumble under pressure.

Belgium's Axel Witsel and Belgium's Yannick Carrasco look dejected after a soccer game between Belgian national team Red Devils and France, the...

Hazard and De Bruyne are now in their 30’s, the three regular defenders are all mid-30’s, Witsel is 32 and Lukaku is 28. A large chunk of this team is coming to the end of their international career and the replacements while good, aren’t quite what these guys once were.

It’s a missed opportunity and a real waste of talent for one of the most exciting pool of players in world football over the last seven years or so.

They’ll have to rebuild and restructure their team now, while France and Spain battle it out for yet another international trophy after once again getting it right.

Luis Enrique showing he is one of the best coaches around with Spain

International managers are usually those who can’t cope at club level, or those who have been managing so long they want a part-time role now.

But currently the international scene is filled with quality managers who while they’ve got their stripes already with clubs domestically, still have plenty to prove.

Germany are managed by treble-winning Hansi Flick, European champions Italy are managed by multi-time Premier League and Serie A winner Roberto Mancini, world number one ranked Belgium are managed by Roberto Martinez. But the one catching the eye the most right now is Spain’s Luis Enrique.

The Spaniards were by far the most entertaining team to feature at Euro 2020 and were so close to making the final, only losing on penalties to eventual winners Italy after a brilliant semi-final contest.

But Enrique and his side got their revenge against Italy on Wednesday in the UEFA Nations League, beating the European champions 2-1 thanks to a brace from Ferran Torres in the first half.

But more than the result was the performance, as Spain dominated the play for the most part and had a clear style and plan that they never wavered from, even when Italy were reduced to ten men after Leonardo Bonucci was given his marching orders for a second yellow card.

Enrique’s vision is clear. He wants possession football, with movement in attack, control in midfield and stability in defence. Everyone must be comfortable in possession and they must trust each other, with a big emphasis on fitness to ensure that the tempo is high at all times.

When he implemented this style at AS Roma years ago, the side initially started well before falling off. He was a young, up and coming manager and was still finding his feet. People make mistakes. But what counts most is how you bounce back from those errors, and Enrique has done that perfectly.

He went to Barcelona and won the treble, although much of the credit for that went to the infamous ‘MSN’ attacking trio of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar.

But it was Enrique who introduced Ivan Rakitic to the side on a more regular basis and ensured that there was always that control in midfield, even when the maestro Xavi wasn’t around.

The football Barcelona played was more than just ‘MSN’ though, they were mesmerising to watch. They scored 171 goals in all competitions across 61 games, averaging 2.8 goals per game and conceding just 39 goals, an average of 0.63 goals per game.

Head coach Luis Enrique of Spain gestures during the UEFA Nations League Semi-Final match between the Italy and Spain at San Siro Stadium on October...

He’s now taken that up a level with Spain, by managing to implement that style in a shorter period of time with his squad but also to do it with a squad that is lacking in superstars.

This is arguably one of the weaker Spain squads in recent memory, but Enrique has got everyone singing from the same hymn sheet and has been able to bring a club-like spirit to the team as well as quality performances on a consistent basis.

At only 51-years-old, Enrique has still got the world at his feet in terms of club football management.

Yes he’s won it all, but better than that would be to win it all again. He’s good enough, his methods clearly still work, and there will be plenty of clubs knocking on his door in the near future should they part ways with their boss.

Build The England Team Around Phil Foden… Now!

The international break is over and England have had a relatively successful time of it, with new contenders for the squad emerging.

Jack Grealish and Mason Mount both impressed, starting all three fixtures during the international break – proving in the process that they can start together for their nation.

It was another name who made the most impact in England’s 4-0 win over Iceland on Wednesday night, as Manchester City youngster Phil Foden scored his first two international goals to take the limelight.

Foden is seen as part of the next generation by many but to me he is already good enough to be the centrepiece of this current side.

Since 2017 when he first broke into the Manchester City senior squad, he has impressed every time he’s played. He is tidy technically, wise beyond his years on and off the ball and a fantastic decision maker when placed in a scenario where he needs to think quickly.

At 20 years old he is now starting to feature more regularly for Man City and is becoming a regular in the England squad, having been picked in two of the last three squads – his only absence being through punishment.

His technical quality is so high, he may already be among the top percentile in the national team. England could do much worse than build around him from now.

Despite world class talent like Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling in the squad, Foden has the versatility to play in several positions and using him as the centrepiece wouldn’t necessarily mean he has to knock one of them out of the side.

Foden’s international career is likely to last beyond another decade so why not start the process now as he gets better and better?

He is more than good enough to play with the current top dogs and for my money he is the top dog of the next bunch that are coming through.

Much like Wayne Rooney at Euro 2004, he wasn’t the top figure in the side but he took the burden on his shoulders and ran with it. Foden is more than capable of doing the same thing.

Put Foden into a central position in the team, where his creative and technical qualities can shine the most and watch him thrive. Don’t put him out wide and waste those incredible qualities in the way England did with someone like Joe Cole.

He’s good enough to be involved and will be good enough to be the man. Don’t wait, pull the trigger. Build the England national team around Phil Foden. Now.

Jack Grealish and Mason Mount Show They Can Play Together In England Win Over Ireland

England were treated to a show at Wembley as they comfortably defeated the Republic of Ireland on Thursday night, with the two men in the spotlight turning in excellent performances.

Goals from Harry Maguire, Jadon Sancho and a penalty from Dominic Calvert-Lewin saw the home side waltz to a 3-0 victory, on a night where both Jack Grealish and Mason Mount started together for Gareth Southgate’s side.

Lined up in a 3-4-3 formation, Mount started in a midfield two alongside Tottenham’s Harry Winks, with Grealish taking up his role on the left of the front three alongside Calvert-Lewin and Sancho.

Once again, Grealish shone in his role getting another assist on the night. That makes it two assists in two starts for the national team, to go with his five goals and five assists for Aston Villa this season too. Mount provided an attacking spark from central midfield too, something that the team has been crying out for in recent international breaks.

England v Republic of Ireland - International Friendly : News Photo

The performances went some way to putting to bed the myth that the two players are competing directly for a place in the squad with each other, with many speculating that they couldn’t play together due to their roles for their clubs being very similar.

The two proved however that they absolutely can fit into the side together and that both have got qualities suited to the roles set out by Southgate.

Grealish was replaced on the hour mark by Phil Foden and Mount replaced on 73 minutes by 17 year-old Jude Bellingham who came on for his senior debut.

Coming off early would usually be a sign that they could have some kind of involvement from the start against Belgium on Sunday, but England’s squad is so strong the likelihood is that neither will begin the game.

That’s not so much of a problem in the short-term and the fact they’ve been able to shut it down as a long-term problem will be seen as a positive for all parties. It’s a great problem for Southgate to have and it’s a good position for both players to be in also, knowing that it’s not one or the other going forward.

Are England Rushing Jude Bellingham Into Senior Side?

England have announced that Jude Bellingham will join up with the senior national team during this international break.

Bellingham, 17, wasn’t initially involved in the squad but after Trent Alexander-Arnold and James Ward-Prowse pulled out through injury manager Gareth Southgate has opted to draft in the youngster.

After joining Borussia Dortmund in the summer, Bellingham has featured fairly regularly for the Bundesliga side this season. He has featured in five league games as well as all three Champions League games grabbing an assist in both competitions. He also scored his only goal of the season so far in the DFB Pokal Cup.

The decision to pull him from the Under-21’s squad and place him in the senior side sparked a lot of debate on social media. Some believe that it’s a good decision, with his obvious talent lacking in the senior side anyway. Others believe that the move is too early and unnecessary, with more senior players more deserving of a spot in the squad.

So which is true? The reality is it’s both.

Having completed 90 minutes just once this season for Dortmund, Bellingham wasn’t even under consideration for the senior squad. He was called up to Under-21’s and was expected to feature prevalently during their qualifiers during this break. Instead, he’ll now likely play a handful of minutes at most.

At 17 years old, he is already playing way above his age bracket. Regular minutes at a top side in European football, with Champions League football is already a huge jump up from where a regular 17 year old would be playing their football.

Pushing him into the senior side doesn’t really do anything either. He likely won’t play much and therefore will lose out on development time. We’ve also seen in recent weeks that the media have no problem with making a young player a target in the press.

Mason Greenwood and Phil Foden were the latest targets, with Greenwood left out of this squad as Manchester United want to protect him from the limelight.

On the other hand Bellingham will be around older players who are better and more developed than him to help him progress more. He will see how the senior squad do things and will get to start building a relationship with Southgate.

It gives him a chance to make an impression on the management team and the senior players and stake his claim for a position in the squad for Euro 2020 next summer.

While players such as Ross Barkley and James Maddison will feel a way about being overlooked despite the injuries, if they continue to perform to the standard they have been so far this season then Southgate will surely want to take another look at them before he has to make a final decision on his squad.

If Bellingham struggles at the higher level, there’s nothing to prevent him going back down to the Under-21’s in the future too. At the end of the day, he’s been called up because of several players ahead of him in the pecking order being unavailable and Southgate’s policy of replacing them with players in the youth setup rather than elsewhere.

Wherever you stand on the matter, it will no doubt be interesting to see such a talented young player playing at the highest level.

Manchester United Protecting Mason Greenwood With England Omission

After a tumultuous start to the season so far, Mason Greenwood has been left out of the England setup for this international break.

The youngster made his senior Three Lions debut in September during the win over Iceland, before he was sent home for breaking quarantine rules along with fellow Mancunian youngster Phil Foden.

Both players were subsequently left out of the next squad as punishment but for this squad Foden was reinstated to the squad. Greenwood however was left out and wasn’t called up to the Under 21’s either.

Iceland v England - UEFA Nations League : News Photo

England manager Gareth Southgate revealed the reason behind his absence was a phone conversation with Manchester United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjær. It’s said that during the conversation, Solskjær revealed that he believed it best for Greenwood to remain the with Red Devils for the break to get back to basics.

It’s well known that Manchester United were very unhappy with England for putting Greenwood forward for a press conference prior to his debut, with the club having made a huge effort to keep him out of the limelight since his breakthrough.

Greenwood hasn’t done any press for the Red Devils unless it was in-house and that’s not a coincidence. The club want to protect him from the media and fans who are looking for a new scapegoat.

They were obviously disappointed following his rule-break in Iceland and they admitted they needed to have conversations with him. But the witch-hunt that has seemingly followed is exactly what the club were trying to avoid.

He’s since been accused of turning up late to training sessions, something the club has publicly denied, while rumours have also swirled of him breaking lockdown rules again. He has also missed fixtures through ‘injury’ while these rumours have swirled.

His performances haven’t helped stem the tide either. His only two goal so far this season wer the opener in the 5-0 win over RB Leipzig and an added time goal in the League Cup as a substitute against Brighton.

Manchester United v RB Leipzig: Group H - UEFA Champions League : News Photo

He’s struggled to create, struggled to assert himself in games and struggled to make any sort of impact at all in all honesty. It could be the pressure, it could just be a blip in form. Whatever it is though, the last thing he needed was to go back to the international scene to be scapegoated and chastised no matter what he does.

The decision to keep him at United during the break is the club’s way of protecting him. They want to get him back to ground zero and start fresh. Get him back to doing what made him so successful at the back end of last season, without all the eyes watching his every move.

His talent is undeniable and it’s been proven he can perform at the highest level. He will get back into the squad at the earliest convenience but the Reds are absolutely doing the right thing and it’s something we don’t see enough in football.

They’re looking after Greenwood, the person. They’re putting the human over the football right now and it’s admirable.

Portugal: Don’t Fear The Big Boys Anymore – You’re One Of Them

For years and years, Portugal have been considered to be in the second tier of international football.

The giants like France, Germany, Brazil and Argentina have always been considered the better teams at international level, with the best talent always seemingly having one of those passports to their name.

Portugal have been grouped with the likes of England and Holland as perennial under-achievers despite having plenty of talent in their squad. It’s all changed now though.

After consecutive 0-0 draws against France and Spain, it may seem like a weird conclusion to come to. But this is the final stretch of a long process that has seen Portugal win the last two competitive tournaments they have been a part of – including the European Championships in 2016.

Plenty of fans and critics like to point out that Portugal won just one of their games in that entire tournament during the initial 90 minutes, the 2-0 semi-final win over Wales. What they fail to mention is they didn’t lose any games during the tournament. Fernando Santos has done a fantastic job of making Portugal almost impenetrable defensively.

Since losing to Uruguay in the World Cup Round of 16 back in 2018, Portugal have only lost one game in all competitions – friendlies included. They’ve beaten Italy, Holland, Serbia, Croatia, and Sweden in that time, while also drawing against France, Spain and Croatia too.

Luxembourg v Portugal - UEFA Euro 2020 Qualifier : News Photo

They’ve also managed to get a squad together which is arguably among the top 3 in the world in terms of pure talent. Defensively, Rui Patricio patrols a backline expertly well as a man with his experience should. In front of him, Pepe is arguably one of the most underrated defenders of all-time ad next to him is an undeniable prospect in Ruben Dias. At full-back the Selecçao have incredible depth with the likes of Ricardo Pereira, João Cancelo, Nelson Semedo and Raphael Guerreiro in the current group while youngsters like Nuno Mendes are coming through too.

In midfield they arguably have the deepest pool of options outside of the French. Danilo Pereira and William Carvalho provide a solid base to build from, with a wide passing range to go with their defensive capabilities. Both men have expert positioning and are great at reading the game, which allows the attacking players to flourish. Other options in the deeper positions include João Moutinho, Ruben Neves, Andre Gomes and Renato Sanches too.

In the more attacking midfield positions the depth continues. In addition to guaranteed starters Bernardo Silva and Bruno Fernandes, Portugal’s options include Gonçalo Guedes, Trinçao, Diogo Jota and Rafa Silva for different occasions.

Portugal’s weakest position is arguably in centre forward and yet they still have the greatest goalscorer in modern football history. Cristiano Ronaldo has moved away from the left-wing position in recent years to a more central role and he’s flourished. During Sky’s broadcast of the draw with France they revealed a stunning stat. If you took all of Cristiano Ronaldo’s goals for Portugal score prior to his 30th birthday, he would still be their all-time top goalscorer with 49 goals. Alongside him, young prospect João Felix is making a name for himself while Andre Silva provides a reliable goal threat in the squad too.

With Santos looking to pair Felix and Ronaldo together going forward, Portugal’s strongest XI is arguably one of the best in world football right now. With a manager and captain who believe in winning by any means necessary too, they need fans to start believing now. Previously against the top sides, Portugal would hang back and defend and look to counter-attack with Ronaldo leading the charge but these last two performances have shown progression; Portugal can go toe-to-toe with the best.

It’s time for Portugal to stop worrying about the prospect of facing the big boys at tournaments now – they’re one of them.