UEFA Nations League exceeds expectations, proves to be a tasty appetizer to Euro 2020
You need an hour or two and a patient listener to explain the new Nations League. Even a Rubik's cube is probably a shade easier. The competition, though, was surprisingly a big hit with good games, big crowds and a feeling that the matches had meaning. This, surely, was better than inconsequential friendlies with coaches changing six players on each side in the second half.
The climax of the tournament in Portugal felt like a mini-European Championship in itself. The four teams to qualify for the semifinals were the group winners in the elite A-League: Portugal, Netherlands, England and Switzerland.
Since those who failed to make it included the past four World Cup winners (Italy, Spain, Germany and France), you get the picture that this event took some winning. The Swiss hammered the gifted Belgians 5-2 to pave their way, and England reversed their World Cup semifinal loss to Croatia. The Dutch had to beat France and Germany, and Portugal went unbeaten throughout.
Of course, the main event comes at Euro 2020 next year, but we learned enough here to make it interesting.
-- Ogden: Portugal will look for trophy hat trick in 2020
-- Miller: Nations League awards
-- Kuper: New-look Dutch team not the finished article just yet
Portugal, who set off wild celebrations in Porto when they beat a resurgent Netherlands 1-0 in the final, have a better team than their victorious side in 2016.
The old line about Portugal being "Cristiano Ronaldo and 10 others" is no longer fair. The 34-year-old talisman, looking fit and sharp, is still very much at the forefront, as evidenced by his semifinal hat trick against Switzerland. But there is also the effervescent Bernardo Silva ready to pick up the torch, Sporting's in-demand midfielder Bruno Fernandes and the immensely promising centre-back Ruben Dias of Benfica. Rafa Silva, also of Benfica, was another who caught the eye in an electric substitute appearance in the final, and young phenom Joao Felix waits in the wings. This is a dangerous team mixing flair with fortitude who will present a threat to whoever they meet next summer.
Meanwhile, Netherlands are putting the nightmare of failing to qualify for the past two big tournaments behind them. Ronald Koeman's resurgent bunch is built around Liverpool's rock Virgil van Dijk and boasts a pair of the most talked about youngsters in world football in Matthijs de Ligt and the silky Barcelona-bound Frenkie de Jong. The one thing that could prevent them from being serious contenders? Perhaps a lack of a centre-forward in the mould of Ruud van Nistelrooy.
England, possibly short of their best with eight players coming off European club finals, were often outplayed by the Dutch yet still came within a wafer-thin VAR decision of advancing to the final. Gareth Southgate has instilled a good tournament mentality and with the advantage of Wembley next year, expect a bold show.
Switzerland remain steady but unspectacular, and still a little too reliant on Xherdan Shaqiri to open up defences. However, the way they shocked Belgium with five goals is a reminder they are nobody's pushover.
As ever, the European Championship will be fiercely contested next summer, and every team will want to avoid the marathon trip to play in Baku, Azerbaijan (three group games and a quarterfinal). It is nearer to Delhi than London. A year out from the tournament, it's hard to predict a winner, but the Nations League has been a tasty enough hors d'oeuvre.
*Note:The top two teams in the 10 Euro qualifying groups make up 20 of next summer's finalists. The other four will emerge from playoffs involving the 16 group winners in the Nations League. If any of those group winners have already qualified via the conventional route, then the next team down in that Nations League group gets the playoff spot.
Euro 2020 will be televised live on ESPN.