“The Nations League is an official trophy and as such we will enter it with the intention of winning it, taking it as seriously as any other competition.” Those were the words of Portugal coach Fernando Santos when questioned about the new UEFA competition that gets underway this weekend.
The Seleção kick off their efforts to win the inaugural tournament with an attractive-looking home clash against Italy next Monday in Lisbon, and the players are towing the party line. “Any competition that we enter, we do so to win it,” said striker André Silva yesterday.
How it works and how to place best bets
Europe’s top twelve ranked countries have the chance to win the first edition of the Nations League. They have been split into the four groups shown below, with group opponents playing each other home and away.
The winners of each section qualify for the “Final Four” phase with the semi-finals, final and third-place match played in June 2019. While finishing top of the groups in League A will give teams the chance to win the tournament, those finishing third will be relegated into League B for the next edition of the competition.
The betting odds for the Nations League are updated constantly on the popular bookies sites, so it is worth checking them regularly to make sure you are on board with your best bets. The tournament opens up a fresh market for fans of football betting, with apparently well-matched teams going head to head. Bookmaker offers include odds for winning each match and each group, with Italy 5/4 favourites to come out on top of Group 3, and Portugal placed at 6/4. Spain are the 4/1 favourites to win the tournament as a whole with Portugal priced at 14/1.
The overriding idea behind the Nations League is to replace much-maligned international friendly matches with competitive fixtures. Just how seriously countries take the competition remains to the seen, however. Despite all the talk from the Portuguese camp about wanting to win the trophy, it is significant that captain and talisman Cristiano Ronaldo has not been selected for the opening match.
Santos explained that the decision to rest CR7 for Portugal’s first two post World Cup fixtures was made in the summer when his transfer from Real Madrid to Juventus was confirmed. “We decided together he would not play these matches to aid his adaptation,” said Santos.
It is difficult to reconcile the talk of going all-out to win this competition with the absence of the team’s best player, along with names such as Ricardo Quaresma and João Moutinho. All three would certainly be included if Santos was announcing a World Cup or European Championship squad.
That said, there is a strong argument to be made that Santos is doing the right thing in using the first match of the competition, along with tomorrow’s friendly against Croatia, to experiment new players, and possibly new formations. “It’s true there are a lot of debutants in the squad,” said Bernardo Silva on the first day of Portugal’s training camp. “It’s a great chance for these players to show the quality they have shown for their clubs.”
Goalkeeper Cláudio Ramos, defender Pedro Mendes and midfielders Gedson Fernandes and Sérgio Oliveira have earned their first call-up, while Rúben Dias and Rony Lopes have each played just once for Portugal’s full national team.
As well as sweeping changes in personnel, critics of Santos will be attentive to his tactical options, with growing calls for the Seleção to take a more proactive approach to matches. The position of Bernardo Silva has been a particularly keen point of discussion. The Manchester City playmaker has usually been deployed wide right by Santos, to little beneficial effect. He was moved into the centre of midfield in the second half against Uruguay in Portugal’s final World Cup match, and arguably produced his best 45 minutes in a Portugal shirt.
“During most of my youth development I played in the centre, then at Monaco and at Manchester City I have played more on the right, but I’m prepared to play wherever the coach wants,” said Bernardo when asked for his opinion about his best position.
Another aspect to look out for is whether Santos will utilise naturally wide players on the flanks, or stick to his more conservative option of selecting players who tend cut inside from those positions, e.g. Bernardo, Bruno Fernandes, João Mário. The fact he has called up four wingers in Gelson Martins, Gonçalo Guedes, Rony Lopes and Bruma – and dropped João Mário – suggests a change in approach may be forthcoming.
“This is a new cycle,” said Santos when announcing the squad. On the back of a disappointing World Cup, and with an abundance of talent at his disposal, Seleção fans will expect to see progress against Croatia and Italy.
by Tom Kundert