Jury still out on UEFA’s Nations League

Spain v Italy - UEFA EURO 2012 Final

Spain, winners of a 16 team Euro 2012

In the future, international friendlies will be a thing of the past. The 54 members of UEFA this morning unanimously ratified the proposed Nations League, which will come into effect from 2018 onwards.

The aim of the competition, according to UEFA’s website, will be “to improve the quality and standard of international football.” UEFA admits in its statement that the exact format of the Nations League is yet to be determined, but “the concept is for the 54 teams to be divided into four large groups according to co-efficient rankings.”

When news of this possible development broke earlier in the week, it was easy to dismiss it as a PR move to make international friendlies more appealing. However it has emerged that the Nations League will be linked to the Euro Qualifiers, with extra places in the European Championships at stake.

In some respects this is a welcome move. Weaker countries will get extra opportunities to qualify for the European Championships. Anything that adds some spice to international friendlies can only be good for supporters, particularly Irish ones. If it wasn’t for the appointment of Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane last autumn, the Aviva Stadium would have been harder to fill for games against Latvia and Poland.

However is there really a need to throw another competition into the mix? The Nations League runs the risk of becoming the Europa League of international football; important to the smaller sides but treated with contempt by the top teams. Furthermore, if it is important to the weaker nations, does that allow less room for them to blood new talent? International friendlies, while often tedious, have always been the stepping stone for younger players between club football and the higher intensity of competitive international fixtures. If the Nations League threatens teams with relegation should they lose, will they be reluctant to field inexperienced players?

In any case, with the expansion of the European Championships to 24 teams taking place, surely the current qualification route would have been enough of an opportunity for the weaker teams to stake their claim. Traditionally the group stages of the Euros have been more exciting than those in the World Cup due to fact that there were only 16 teams of a decent quality involved. Raising the quota to 24 teams has already given the third-best side in a qualification group the opportunity to progress to the flagship tournament via the play-offs.

UEFA run the risk of not only diluting the quality of the championship itself but also of the qualifiers. If a team is doing well in the Nations League, will they focus more on achieving their qualifying objective in that manner than in the qualifiers?

These are all questions which cannot be definitively answered until the inaugural Nations League in 2018. The tournament could be a success, or it could be just another ridiculous idea like those linesmen behind the goals who don’t actually do anything.

 

El Clasico: Messi v Ronaldo not the only show in town

An intriguing encounter in store tonight
El Clasico. There’s no more intriguing game in the football calendar. Leaving aside the political context, Real Madrid and Barcelona is never a boring spectacle. For the past few years it has been the Ronaldo and Messi show. That duel still takes centre stage, but this season there’s a wonderful supporting act in Bale and Neymar.
In the last El Clasico at the Camp Nou in October, the home side ran out 2-1 winners following goals from Neymar and Sanchez. That goal helped endear Neymar to the Barcelona support following his high profile summer move from Santos. Unusually however, the Brazilian’s transfer has come under even more scrutiny in the interim. It has emerged that the Catalan side paid far more than originally estimated to secure his services.
Off the field problems aside, Neymar has struggled for consistency when playing for the Blaugrana. His best spell coincided with Lionel Messi’s absence due to injury. Since Messi’s return this year, Neymar has found it difficult to be as effective. Could it be that Neymar needs to be the main man in attack in order to reach his full potential? Can he and Messi form a long-term beneficial partnership up front? Games against teams in the lower half of La Liga can only tell us so much. Real Madrid in the Bernabeu  will give a real indicator as to how the two South American stars can play together.
Messi himself has cut a frustrated figure at times this season. Gerardo Martino’s time at the helm has seen a slight shift away from the tiki taka football cultivated to devastating effect under Pep Guardiola and Tito Vilanova.  This season has seen an emphasis in some games on diagonal balls and crosses, as opposed to patient build up play with the ball and urgent pressing without it. Martino is clearly trying to formulate a Plan B that Barcelona can switch to when opponents are difficult to break down. However these tactics need a genuine number 9 who can hold up the ball and get on the end of crosses. Messi is many many things, but an old style centre forward he ain’t. Noises from the Camp Nou suggest that Martino will move on in the summer, most likely to take over the Argentina national side. If he does, expect to see an advocate of Tiki Taka hired in his place. Messi is the one player who Barcelona don’t want to upset. He was the star of Barca’s 7 goal dismantling of Osasuna last week and will likely need to reproduce those goal scoring exploits at the Bernabeu. 
Since defeat at the hands of their bitter rivals in October, Real Madrid haven’t lost a game. This extra-ordinary run has been facilitated by a cohesive unit who are as potent in attack as they are  solid in defence. Ronaldo has been in his usual superlative form, and has been adequately supported by the player who usurped him as the most expensive footballer on the planet, Gareth Bale. Bale played in the last El Clasico while still not clearly fully fit (he didn’t have a pre-season), but since then he has been in flying form, weighing in with 14 goals and 17 assists as Madrid marched to the top of La Liga and into the Champions League quarter finals. His former team-mate at Spurs, Luka Modric, has been imperious in the midfield, with short odds on him being voted player of the season in La Liga.
Also in good form has been Karim Benzema, with Zinedine Zidane’s move from upstairs to the coaching team being credited for improving the French striker’s performances. The number 9 is a doubt for tonight, and Jese Rodriguez is certainly out. If Benzema doesn’t recover in time, Arsenal target Alvaro Morata may see game time. An extremely talented youngster, he has yet to  prove his worth to a dubious Carlo Ancelotti.

With Barcelona’s difficulties at the back (set to be compounded at the end of the season with Carlos Puyol’s retirement) it is difficult to see past Real Madrid for tonight’s game. However, if Messi and Neymar manage to combine to good effect, there’s always a chance Barcelona could sneak a result. A win for Real is a disaster both for Barcelona and neutral observers, as it would leave the Catalans 7 points adrift entering the home stretch of the season. A draw would suit Atletico Madrid as well as anyone, as they travel to Real Betis beforehand and could be level with their city rivals at the summit before El Clasico brings the footballing world to a standstill.