The inaugural UEFA Nations League semi-finals begin tonight as the hosts, Portugal, take on Switzerland in the Estádio do Dragão in Porto before England and the Netherlands face off the following evening in Vitória’s Estádio D. Afonso Henriques tomorrow.
The two winners will meet in the final on Sunday, following the third/fourth place playoff between the losers. With both matches featuring in our 1X2 and Correct Score pools, we’ve written the following previews.
Portugal vs. Switzerland
Analysing Portugal’s form over the last year is a difficult task and can be interpreted in two different ways.
The positive spin is that they are unbeaten in eight and face the easiest opponent remaining in the UEFA Nations League, Switzerland, in the semi-final of what is now effectively a home tournament.
The negative outlook would be that Portugal have drawn five of those eight, including the last four in a row against Italy, Poland, Serbia and Ukraine. They are a credible group of opponents, yet with Portugal boasting attacking riches such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Bernardo Silva, you might expect more from them. Indeed, their attack has been muted recently and they have scored more than once in just two of their previous 11 matches.
Goalscoring isn’t a problem for Switzerland who have been far from goal-shy recently, netting ten in their last three matches. Remarkably, five of those came against Belgium in November.
The primary attacking outlets for the Swiss are Benfica’s Haris Seferovic, who has scored 17 in 59 appearances, as well as Liverpool’s Xherdan Shaquiri who has scored 22 times for his country.
Portugal’s approach has been notoriously dreary but effective in recent tournaments. Indeed, they won Euro 2016 after drawing six of their seven matches in the tournament, so it will hardly be a surprise if they adopt similar tactics here, trying to wear the Swiss down before capitalising in extra-time.
I am envisaging another low-scoring draw with Switzerland becoming increasingly frustrated at manner in which their hosts stifle them.
England vs. Netherlands
A match that would have been a fitting final, England and the Netherlands are two of the most exciting young sides in world football at the moment.
Both sides have taken similar paths to get there, emerging from difficult periods of mediocrity thanks to progressive coaches who have placed their faith in exciting, young talents whilst ushering out more established players who have had their chances and failed.
There will be many familiar names on show from the latter stages of the Champions League, as Ajax, Tottenham and Liverpool were the three big stories of this year’s competition.
England and Holland produced 11 Champions League semi-finalists and it would have been 13 had Joe Gomez and Harry Kane not been injured.
Having failed to qualify for either of the last two major tournaments, the Dutch are on the up again courtesy of the young Ajax core at the heart of the squad who have given them new life.
Their last seven fixtures have been incredibly tough, facing Germany three times, France twice, Belgium and Belarus, yet Netherlands have emerged with a highly credible three wins and two draws, with the run only marred by single-goal defeats to Germany and France.
They are clearly a far cry from the side who lost to Bulgaria and were hammered 4-0 by France in their doomed qualification campaign for the World Cup.
Even the Dutch can’t boast a turnaround as dramatic as England’s under Gareth Southgate though. Despite a generally successful reign, England had lost their way under Roy Hodgson who exited Euro 2016 in disarray at the hands of minnows Iceland.
Southgate subsequently took over and has won 19, drawn eight and lost six, taking England to the semi-finals of the World Cup and this event. Additionally, two of those losses can have asterisks placed next to them after he fielded extremely weakened teams for tactical purposes.
When studying England’s most recent form, five is the magic number. They have won their last five in a row and have scored five in each of their last two games, against Czech Republic and Montenegro.
Confidence in the English camp must be at its highest since 1996 and I actually think they will make a statement to the world by winning this tournament, beating the Netherland en route.