International football in Europe has been largely on hiatus since November 2019. The COVID-19 outbreak cancelled the March fixtures and saw Euro 2020 postponed until the summer of 2021. This second edition of the Nations League — a multi-divisional competition for UEFA’s 55 member nations divided into merit-based groups on coefficients — was meant to signal the start of the next World Cup cycle, with all eyes on qualification for Qatar. But the narrative has changed. Now you hear coaches talking about how they are navigating the different quarantine protocols, coaching inside bio-secure bubbles, the difficulty of players coming into a squad having had vastly different amounts of playing time and an endless season that seems to be overlapping and folding in on itself.
But while this Nations League is another step forward for a sport finding its way through a global pandemic, football waits for no one. The ravenous transfer market has already seen world-class players switch clubs and countries, and there will be players across the first two rounds of the Nations League who will be spending any downtime checking their phones to see if their dream move is materialising. These opening two rounds also offer players a chance to put themselves back in the window.
And on top of all of this, there’s national pride at stake. The Champions League only finished 10 days ago, Ligue 1 and the Eredivisie have started afresh after being cancelled back in March, and the Premier League is kicking off again in a handful of days. It’s hectic and full of complicated logistics, but even without fans, there will be plenty of intrigue to see how the teams navigate these opening two rounds of matches.
Here we look at the key headlines as the Nations League gets off and running again.
How are world champions France looking?
Despite Ligue 1 being cancelled in March and the league only two rounds into the 2020-21 season, France — who are in Group A33 with Portugal, Sweden and Croatia — had two teams in the final four of the Champions League and have a strong Premier League contingent, meaning their players should be fit and ready.
Paul Pogba was a late omission from Didier Deschamps‘ original 23-man squad due to testing positive for COVID-19, but was replaced by the ridiculously talented 17-year-old Rennes midfielder Eduardo Camavinga. Deschamps also called up uncapped duo Houssem Aouar and RB Leipzig‘s Dayot Upamecano, but Aouar had to drop out after also testing positive for the coronavirus.
Elsewhere there’s no place in the squad for Inter Miami CF‘s new signing, Blaise Matuidi, but Anthony Martial earns a recall after impressing in the closing stages of the 2019-20 season for Manchester United and will hope to win his first cap since 2018. Tanguy Ndombele and Aymeric Laporte were left out while Sevilla’s Jules Kounde will have to wait to make his debut.
And what about Nations League holders Portugal?
The main team news around the Selecao, who won the inaugural Nations League in 2019, sees Barcelona‘s talented youngster Francisco Trincao called up while Cristiano Ronaldo is also included, with the legendary forward just one goal from a century for the national side. Alongside Trincao, who arrived at Barcelona for €31 million in July from SC Braga, Portugal have also brought Granada duo Rui Silva and Domingos Duarte into the squad. Lyon goalkeeper Antony Lopes returns too, as do Sergio Oliveira, Joao Moutinho, Andre Gomes and Ruben Neves.
Shaka Hislop explains why Man United’s David de Gea holds the edge over Chelsea’s Kepa Arrizabalaga for Spain.
How are Spain shaping up?
It’s all change for Spain, who are in Group A with Switzerland, Ukraine and Germany, as Luis Enrique shuffles his pack. The likes of Alvaro Morata and Jordi Alba have been left out, while Mikel Oyarzabal was a last-minute withdrawal due to coronavirus, but this squad is Luis Enrique ushering in a new generation and fast-tracking their evolution. Barcelona’s incredibly talented winger Ansu Fati earns a call-up as does Manchester City‘s new signing Ferran Torres. Then there are places in the squad for RB Leipzig’s Dani Olmo, Wolves’ Adama Traore, Real Madrid‘s in-demand left-back Sergio Reguilon, and Manchester City’s Eric Garcia — linked with a move to Barcelona. There are also spots for Athletic Bilbao keeper Unai Simon and midfielder Oscar, who has just joined Sevilla for £12m.
With just eight players in the 24-man squad having earned more than 15 caps, he has also included the likes of Pau Torres, Mikel Merino and Fabian. Leeds United fans will also be keeping a watchful eye on their new £30m striker Rodrigo.
But don’t for one minute think this is experimental on Luis Enrique’s part. “If the European Championship was to be played tomorrow, this would be my team,” he said. “All players have to take a step forward, whether they are 17 years old or 19 years old or 33 years old.”
It’s been a turbulent few days for Southgate’s England …
It’s hardly been ideal preparation for England manager Gareth Southgate. Having originally included Manchester United captain Harry Maguire in his squad for the matches against Iceland and Denmark, Maguire was then withdrawn after being handed a suspended jail sentence — an outcome he’s since appealed. Then there were the withdrawals of Marcus Rashford and Harry Winks, but this is an England squad packed with youth.
There are a host of potential debutants in Mason Greenwood, Phil Foden, Conor Coady (Maguire’s replacement), Dean Henderson, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Jack Grealish (a late call up for Rashford) and Kalvin Phillips, who could become the first Leeds player since 2004 to win an England cap.
England — who, like many of the other teams in the Nations League, have been granted exemption from the usual immigration restrictions ahead of Saturday’s match against Iceland — will be hoping to put down a series of markers in Group A22, which also includes Belgium.
Chelsea’s Timo Werner is adamant he will continue his goalscoring form in the Premier League.
How are Germany looking after Bayern’s dominance?
Joachim Low has opted against naming the Bayern Munich group who played almost every minute in their journey to the Champions League title, so Manuel Neuer, Joshua Kimmich, Leon Goretzka and Serge Gnabry are all rested, but Niklas Sule is included after he missed a huge amount of last season through injury.
While Low wants some players to “chill out and recover properly, both physically and mentally,” their absence opens the door for others. There are potential debuts for Atalanta‘s brilliant wing-back Robin Gosens while Florian Neuhaus of Borussia Monchengladbach and Hoffenheim keeper Oliver Baumann could make their debuts. Chelsea‘s Timo Werner and Antonio Rudiger are also included as is Kai Havertz, who is expected to join his Germany teammates at Stamford Bridge sooner rather than later.
“As a national team coach I have a responsibility to the players,” Low said last week. “What is important is that clubs and federations work closer together than ever in order to control the strain on the players.”
What approach are Belgium taking?
Roberto Martinez has an abundance of riches at his disposal and has called on Kevin de Bruyne, the prolific Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard in his 28-man squad. But Martinez is keeping one eye on the future with Anderlecht duo Jeremy Doku — reportedly on Liverpool‘s radar — and Landry Dimata included. There are also places for the uncapped Leandro Trossard and goalkeepers Koen Casteels and Hendrik Van Crombrugge.
Michy Batshuayi and Christian Benteke are both left out with Martinez saying this was not a “football decision” but more on focusing on preseason training with their clubs. Thomas Vermeulen could be a late addition if they can sort out logistics to bring him over from Japan, where he plays for Vissel Kobe, while keep an eye on their superb 19-year-old attacking midfielder Yari Verschaeren.
What about Italy in Group A1?
Roberto Mancini’s squad has a settled look with just three uncapped players included ahead of their Group A1 matches with Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Netherlands. Internazionale‘s Alessandro Bastoni earns a call-up, as do Sassuolo pair Manuel Locatelli and striker Francesco Caputo, who could make his international debut at the age of 33. Veteran defender Giorgio Chiellini is also back in the squad as he makes a mockery of Old Father Time, while Jorginho has been included after quarantining but Sandro Tonali — who is on the verge of a move to AC Milan — drops out after self-isolating.
Tonali will be one of those players in the transfer purgatory bracket as he waits on his £27m move to AC Milan go through.
And it’s been a turbulent time for the Netherlands …
With Ronald Koeman now fire fighting at Barcelona and trying — seemingly in vain — to keep their star player Lionel Messi at the Camp Nou, it’s caretaker Dwight Lodeweges who leads the Netherlands into their Group A1 fixtures with Italy, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Poland. Their opening fixtures will play out against a backdrop of uncertainty with Louis van Gaal reportedly keen on replacing Koeman.
Interim boss Lodeweges will do his utmost to keep the players’ attention focused on footballing matters alone but does not expect to be handed the post on a full-time basis. “I will be here for the coming period until a solution has been found,” he said on Monday. “Someone else is going to come, at least that is the intention. It would be great if that could be done as soon as possible, but it is important that the KNVB does not get to work too quickly. They have to get the right man.”
Manchester United’s new recruit Donny van de Beek is one of the star names in the squad with Barcelona’s Frenkie de Jong and Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk also included. Memphis Depay and Leroy Fer return while there are potential debutants in Owen Wijndal, Perr Schuurs and Mohamed Ihattaren. Matthijs de Ligt sits out after undergoing shoulder surgery, Daley Blind is awaiting further tests on his heart so is omitted while Donyell Malen is not yet fully fit after a spell out with a serious knee injury.
How are the other teams shaping up?
In League A, Poland are without star striker Robert Lewandowski, who is rested after helping Bayern Munich to another trophy-laden season, while Bosnia and Herzegovina will have to cope without Barcelona’s new midfielder Miralem Pjanic after he tested positive for COVID-19 in August.
Elsewhere Christian Eriksen will hope to impress for Denmark under new boss Kasper Hjulmand, as he names a squad which includes uncapped duo Joakim Maehle and Christian Norgaard. Iceland are fuming Premier League duo Gylfi Sigurdsson and Johann Berg Gudmundsson are both unavailable, with manager Erik Hamren saying he accepted their decision but was “not happy with it.”
Sweden boss Janne Andersson was forced into a last-minute reshuffle with Martin Olsson left out of the squad after a number of coronavirus scares at Helsingborgs IF with Alaves’ John Guidetti called in. Andersson will look to young trio Dejan Kulusevski, Alexander Isak and Mattias Svanberg to impress.
Croatia are without captain Luka Modric and Sevilla’s new recruit Ivan Rakitic, while Marin Pongracic misses out through illness. Switzerland manager Vladimir Petkovic is juggling a squad with varying amounts of playing time but will look to Breel Embolo and Granit Xhaka to impress while for Ukraine, under Andriy Shevchenko, they include eight uncapped players in their squad with veteran keeper Andriy Pyatov skippering the side.
Elsewhere, Wales include Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale, despite his lack of minutes at the end of last season’s La Liga run-in. Wales manager Ryan Giggs, however, has few concerns over Bale: “He’s experienced and professional enough to look after himself,” Giggs said. “But I’m there if he ever needs to talk to.” The Republic of Ireland — in Group B44 — embark on their campaign with new manager Stephen Kenny at the helm.
What are the key matches in the first two rounds?
The marquee fixture in the opening round sees Germany host Spain in Stuttgart on Thursday (2:45 p.m. ET, watch live on ESPN2). Low’s men will hope to get their campaign off to a winning start, even without a number of Bayern stars, while Luis Enrique’s young side will look to hit the ground running. Also keep an eye on Portugal-Croatia (Sept. 5, 2:45 p.m. ET, watch live on ABC), Sweden-France (Sept. 5, 2:45 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+) and Denmark-Belgium (Sept. 5, 2:45 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+) on the opening weekend while England will look to banish their Euro 2016 ghosts against Iceland.
In Matchday 2, the standout fixture is Italy’s trip to the Netherlands on Sept. 7 (2:45 p.m. ET stream live on ESPN+), with the Azzurri currently on an 11-match winning streak, while France-Croatia — a repeat of the 2018 World Cup final — will also be fascinating (Sept. 8, 2:45 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+).