With the domestic football season across Europe now all wrapped up and behind us, attention turns to the international football that will be on display throughout the first half of June. Whilst it’s strange to think that the World Cup is still almost six months away, there is consolation in that the summer at least sees the return of the UEFA Nations League, a competition gradually growing in both recognition and stature across Europe.
From the heavyweights of League A to the minnows of League D, it’s fascinating to try and predict who will emerge successful across all of these delicately balanced groups, and which four nations will earn the right to contest the Nations League finals next summer. With four of the six fixture rounds to be played in the next couple of weeks, we’ll be a long way towards knowing who could emerge as successful in the third edition of this tournament, and who could face the drop to a lower division.
With a myriad of games to be played in the coming weeks all over Europe, here are five interesting fixtures to look out for.
Battle of the Strikers (Serbia – Norway)
Starting with a clash from League B, Serbia and Norway will do battle on June 2nd, a match-up that will likely see two of Europe’s most promising young strikers face off against each other.
By now, Serbia’s Dusan Vlahovic and Norway’s Erling Haaland are very well known in European football, following their meteoric rise to the top. Both born in the year 2000, Haaland shot to stardom during the 2019/20 campaign, whilst Vlahovic started making waves in the Italian Serie A in 2021, and both have now secured big transfers to top European sides.
This game will have an extra edge to it following Serbia’s Euro 2020 Qualifying Play-off victory over Norway back in October 2020, although the Serbs themselves later failed to qualify after being defeated on penalties by Scotland in the final. Since the two countries faced each other in that play-off, Haaland and Vlahovic have earned a combined total of 24 international caps and scored 19 goals, underlining just how prolific these two strikers are on the European stage.
It’ll be fascinating to see who gets the upper hand this time.
Iberian Inferno (Spain – Portugal)
Up into League A now and in Group 2 we have the classic Iberian match-up of Spain and Portugal. A fixture that over the years has had the potential to both enthral and disappoint, it’ll be particularly fascinating to see the two face each other in this competition for the first time.
Both have already had significant moments in the Nations League’s short history, with Portugal emerging as the inaugural winners back in 2019 whilst Spain were the beaten finalist in 2021. It’s very clear that both countries have taken to this new tournament immediately, and you feel that Spain’s near miss in the last edition combined with Portugal’s disappointing showing at Euro 2020 will fuel each team respectively for this huge clash.
Will Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal triumph over their neighbours? Or will Spain stay true to history and maintain its slight advantage over the Selecao in international tournaments? One thing is for sure; if it turns out to be anything like their match in the 2018 World Cup, we’re in for a treat.
Revenge, or Road to Redemption? (England – Italy)
Now to Group 3 in League A, and we come to one of the most fascinating fixtures in this season’s competition. This year’s ‘Group of Death’ holds plenty of exciting games in store, and will also pit England up against Italy again, less than one year one from a dramatic Euro final.
In that famous game last July, there was very little to separate the two sides, with England’s penalty curse once again turning out to be the team’s undoing as Italy were crowned the champions of Europe. A lot can change in a year, though, and Italian football has gone from joy to despair after the Azzurri shockingly failed to qualify for the World Cup for the second time in a row.
England will be one of the teams on the plane to Qatar in November, and it’ll be intriguing to see what the outcome will be when the Three Lions’ desire for revenge is pitted up against Italy’s fury at yet another dismal World Cup Qualifying failure.
It should be remembered that England will be forced to play this one behind closed doors following fan trouble at Wembley during last year’s Euro final – could the empty stadium play into Italy’s hands?
An Unlikely Rivalry (Wales – Belgium)
A short while ago, the thought of Wales facing Belgium likely wouldn’t have sparked much interest from fans outside of the two respective nations, but in the past eight years several high-stakes match-ups between the two sides has led to a somewhat unlikely, but blossoming rivalry between the two sides.
Having previously only faced each other twice in 15 years, Wales took four points off Belgium to qualify for Euro 2016, their first major tournament since 1958, and famously defeated the Red Devils again in the quarter-finals of that tournament. Wales and Belgium went to battle again in the recent World Cup Qualifiers, with Belgium gaining some revenge over the Dragons and forcing them to navigate a potentially tricky World Cup play-off against either Scotland or Ukraine.
Now, the two sides will face each other again on June 11th. Logic would say that Belgium are far stronger than Wales, but given the recent history of this fixture, you’d be brave to bet against either team.
Russian Rematch (Croatia – France)
We’ve already mentioned how League A will host a rematch of a recent international final, but in Group 1 an even bigger rematch will soon be upon us. It seems like a long time ago now that France dispatched Croatia 4-2 in Moscow to lift the World Cup, but it still stands as the most recent World Cup Final, with the two teams set to face each other again in this season’s Nations League.
France and Croatia actually did face each other in the previous edition of this tournament, with Les Bleus maintaining their dominance with 4-2 and 2-1 victories over the Croats en-route to lifting the Nations’ League trophy last October. In the years since that World Cup Final, France have remained among the world’s strongest international teams, whilst Croatia has slowly but surely started to transition to a promising, younger generation.
You’d probably expect the French to have the upper hand in this one, but this new wave of Croatian players will undoubtedly feel they have a point to prove as well.
Manchester City and England fan. Writer of opinion and features on all things Premier League and beyond.