UEFA Nations League finals: Don't write off England but Portugal are favourites
The last time Portugal hosted a major tournament, a teenage Cristiano Ronaldo ended up in tears after the hosts fell to a shock defeat against Greece in the final of Euro 2004. It has pretty much been an upward curve since then for the Juventus forward in terms of his club career, with Manchester United and then Real Madrid -- with five Champions League winners' medals -- but on the international stage, even Portugal's surprise success at Euro 2016 was tarnished for Ronaldo due to the player being injured early in the final against France.
But 15 years after his first international tournament ended in disappointment on home soil, Ronaldo now has what would have been an unexpected chance to go full circle and make amends by inspiring the European champions to glory in the inaugural Nations League finals. With Portugal, England, Switzerland and the Netherlands vying to be the first winners of the Nations League, you can bet that Ronaldo will be desperate to get his hands on another major trophy and be the first captain to lift it aloft.
UEFA's new tournament was initially greeted with a mixture of confusion, skepticism and derision when it was introduced following the World Cup to reduce the number of meaningless international friendlies, replacing them with competitive fixtures. But after just one series of the competition it has proven to be a huge success, with the intensity of the games alone justifying UEFA's decision to shake up the international calendar.
England's vibrant victories against Spain in Seville and Croatia at Wembley saw Gareth Southgate's team build on the success of reaching the World Cup semifinals by securing a place in June's Nations League final. And the Netherlands, having missed out on successive major tournaments in 2016 and 2018, underlined their resurgence under Ronald Koeman by overcoming the last two world champions, France and Germany, to book their place in Portugal.
Switzerland make up the final four in northern Portugal after fighting back from 2-0 down in their final qualifier against Belgium in Lucern to win 5-2 and top their section.
The draw for the semifinals sees Portugal open up against the Swiss in Porto's Estadio do Dragao on June 5 before England face the Dutch 24 hours later at the Estadio D. Afonso Henriques in Guimaraes.
England, beginning to emerge as a genuine world force under Southgate due to the talents of Harry Kane, Marcus Rashford, Joe Gomez and Raheem Sterling, will fancy their chances of winning a first international tournament since 1966, especially after avoiding the Portuguese in the semifinal draw.
The Netherlands, led by captain Virgil van Dijk, will provide a stern test for England in Guimaraes, with Koeman's young stars such as Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong likely to figure highly for the Dutch. But Portugal, even with Ronaldo due to turn 34 in February, will be the team to beat with the likes of Bernardo Silva leading the new wave of talent emerging under head coach Fernando Santos. Ronaldo loves nothing more than being the centre of attention and the focus of the world's gaze on the football pitch, and the Nations League will already have been highlighted prominently on his calendar for next June.
The new competition has already proven to be a success, but if Ronaldo can star in the final stages next summer, it will give the Nations League and UEFA the perfect showcase for the tournament.