It has plunged Germany into renewed crisis, provoked scenes of jubilation in Kosovo and Gibraltar, and set up what could be an exciting week of international football in a summer usually bereft of competition for European countries.
The UEFA Nations League might not have been welcomed by some clubs across the continent – Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp called it "the most senseless competition in the world of football" – but it has generated plenty of intriguing story lines to pique interest in its inaugural year.
The competition has reached its final set of qualifying matches, and results over the next week will determine which teams will feature in a Final Four mini-tournament in June – when the first Nations League champion will be crowned. Currently, France, Belgium, Portugal and Spain are favourites to be the finalists.
The upcoming matches will also establish which of the lower-ranked teams qualify for the Nations League playoffs, from which one place at the 2020 European Championships will be awarded.
League A: Big Dogs in Battle for Final Four Berths
World champions France head into their final fixture in Group A1 against the Netherlands on Friday, 16 November, as favourites to advance. With two wins from their first three group games – the second of them a come-from-behind victory over Germany in October – a solitary point in Rotterdam will be enough for Didier Deschamps’ side to confirm top spot even before the Dutch visit Germany for the group finale on Monday, 19 November.
Die Mannschaft sit rock bottom of the group, with only one point from three matches so far. Joachim Loew’s unit must defeat Netherlands in Gelsenkirchen, and hope the Dutch don’t get the better of France earlier, to avoid the ignominy of being relegated to League B for the 2020 edition.
In Group A2, world number one ranked Belgium are in control of their own fate heading into a double-header against Switzerland and Iceland. The World Cup bronze medallists are presently tied with the Swiss on six points, but have a greater likelihood of progression on account of having played one lesser game.
The other two groups in the top division seem headed to a far closer climax, with multiple permutations involved in both.
Portugal and Spain, respectively, are in pole position in Groups A3 and A4, but both still have jobs to complete.
The European champions – still without Cristiano Ronaldo – lead Italy by two points in Group A3, while also having a game in hand over the Azzurri. A point away in Italy on Saturday, 17 November, will secure Portugal’s berth in the Final Four. Defeat, however, will mean the Portuguese will face a must-win clash on Tuesday, 20 November, at home against the already-relegated Poland.
Spain will guarantee progress with a win against World Cup runners-up Croatia on Thursday, 15 November – but any other result in Zagreb will leave the group precariously placed going into the closing contest between England and Croatia on Sunday, 20 November. If Spain fail to win, either out of England and Croatia could be in a position to finish level with the 2010 world champions on seven points.
If two teams finish with the same points, their head-to-head scores from the two matches played between the sides will determine who goes through.
‘Elite’ Listing on the Line for Cream of League B
Ukraine became the first country to secure promotion to League A for the second edition of the Nations League, in 2020. Bosnia and Russia look certain to join Ukraine, with both well clear and requiring just one point from their respective final matches against Austria and Sweden.
But the last group in League B is set for a tense finish. Denmark, as things stand, are two points behind leaders Wales in Group B4, with both teams locking horns in Cardiff on Friday, 16 November. But the Danes have played one lesser game than the Welsh, and that means they could surpass the table-toppers with a win against relegated Ireland – as long as they don’t lose in Wales.
No team is yet to assure themselves promotion into League B from League C, which features some close duels across the board – most notably between Serbia, Montenegro and Romania in Group C4.
In League D, the tier comprising Europe’s lowest-ranked countries, Gibraltar and Kosovo have claimed their first-ever competitive international wins. Kosovo – among the newest members of UEFA – are likely to secure a shot-in-the-arm promotion, holding a two-point lead over Azerbaijan in Group D3.
Nations League: Route 2 to Euro 2020
While it may have divided opinion in its launch season, the UEFA Nations League also serves as a second road to qualification for the 2020 European Championships. The 16 group winners from across Leagues A, B, C and D – or the next best-placed teams who haven’t already qualified via the European qualifiers starting in March – will enter the play-off rounds to compete for the last four qualifying spots.
It’s a bit of mind-numbing scenario, involving lots of permutations and combinations, but long story short: It means the supposed ‘minnows’ of Europe have something very tangible to fight for.