Nations League gets competitive

World Cup winners France, Eden Hazard’s Belgium and a fast-improving Netherlands under Ronald Koeman could all book places in the finals of the Nations League in matches up to Tuesday.

The competition, Uefa’s bid to move away from meaningless friendly matches, has divided opinion in its inaugural season.

The strongest sides will qualify for the finals next June, but all 16 group winners will get a place in the Euro 2020 qualification playoffs.

But if those nations have already qualified for Euro 2020 through the normal channels, the best-ranked team from a lower group will be drafted in.

Qualifying for Euro 2020 does not begin until next March.

Kylian Mbappe can carry world champions France into the finals on Friday November 16 with a draw against the resurgent Netherlands in Rotterdam.

“We are going there for the win,” coach Didier Deschamps warned. “We are the world champions and we will behave like it.”

France beat the Dutch 2-1 in September after PSG star Mbappe scored the opener and Chelsea target man Olivier Giroud clinched the three points after Ryan Babel had equalised.

Since then the Netherlands have thrashed Germany 3-0 and drawn 1-1 in Belgium. Koeman is rebuilding the Dutch squad that failed to reach this year’s World Cup with rookie striker Arnaut Groeneveld, a 21-year-old Nigerian-born winger, and Justin Kluivert, son of Patrick, two exciting new faces.

Two of the world’s best defenders also go head-to-head as Real Madrid’s Ballon d’Or contender Rafael Varane will line up for France and Liverpool’s blockbuster signing, Dutch captain Virgil van Dijk, will marshall his backline.

Deschamps will be missing stars Paul Pogba and Benjamin Mendy but has recalled Moussa Sissoko, the versatile Tottenham man who was one of their stars in their run to the Euro 2016 final.

Germany have struggled to put a disastrous World Cup behind them and face the prospect of relegation from Group A1 after taking a solitary point so far.

They have to beat the Netherlands in Gelsenkirchen on Monday to avoid dropping down a division.

Few observers expect Germany to fail to book their ticket to Euro 2020 through the normal qualifying process, but their form has done nothing to boost their flagging morale.

Coach Joachim Loew, who retained his job despite the first-round World Cup exit, has begun to dispense with the 2014 World Cup-winning players including Jerome Boateng and bring in fresh blood like Manchester City’s Leroy Sane.

The incentive for the Dutch is clear: two wins will get them into next year’s finals.

Hazard’s Belgium, the side that were only stopped at the World Cup by France, have the opportunity to reach the finals when they play against Group A2 opponents Switzerland in Lucerne on Sunday.

Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp calls the Nations League a “senseless” competition comparable to making a prize heavyweight box every night.

But Germany’s Loew likes it, saying: “Competition is preferable to playing against small nations.” — AFP

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