The Nations League returns tonight as some of the finest European teams tune up in their final matches before the winter World Cup in Qatar. But these aren’t pointless friendlies with no repercussions, this is a competitive tournament that several nations want to win.
Unfortunately for most of the home nations, the prospect of relegation is far greater than the prospect of winning the Nations League, as Portugal did in the inaugural edition of the competition in 2019. The finals tournaments next summer will feature the four winners of each group in League A, but let’s take a look at the permutations for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
League A, Group 3 fixtures:
Friday, 23 September (19:45 BST): Germany v Hungary, England v Italy
Monday, 26 September (19:45 BST): England v Germany, Hungary v Italy
England’s Nations League campaign couldn’t have gone much worse in the summer. Things started badly with a 1-0 defeat in Budapest, before back to back draws against Germany and Italy steadied the ship. However, the 4-0 home hammering by Hungary at Molineux, as Southgate tried out some fringe players, has to go down as one of the worst results the Three Lions have had in their recent history.
As a result, they lie bottom of Group 3 with just two points to their name. Should they lose to Italy on Friday, they will be relegated from League A, and play in League B the next time the tournament is played. That would mean games against the likes of Iceland, Finland and Serbia rather than Europe’s elite. Only winning both games will secure England’s safety, but they need a minimum of four points to keep their hopes alive.
Although all eyes are on the World Cup, heading into it on the back of a relegation would be far from ideal.
League A, Group 4 fixtures:
Thursday, 22 September (19:45 BST): Belgium v Wales, Poland v Netherlands
Sunday, 25 September (19:45 BST): Netherlands v Belgium, Wales v Poland
Wales have also had a tough campaign so far but that was perhaps to be expected, as they sit in a group with the Netherlands, Belgium and Poland. They’ve picked up just one point from their four games so far, a 1-1 draw at home to Belgium, but importantly, heading into the World Cup, they have scored in every game.
A relegation from the Nations League will not take any shine off the fact that they will be playing in their first World Cup since 1958 come November. That’s the big target for Rob Page’s men and these games can give them the chance to test their mettle against Europe’s best.
They’ll be relegated on Friday if they lose to Belgium and Poland avoid defeat at home to the Netherlands but if they can get something in Belgium and Poland don’t win, we could be in for a thriller when the two sides meet in Cardiff. It isn’t over yet.
League B, Group 1 fixtures:
Wednesday, 21 September (19:45 BST): Scotland v Ukraine
Saturday, 24 September: Armenia v Ukraine (14:00 BST), Scotland v Republic of Ireland (19:45 BST)
Tuesday, 27 September (19:45 BST): Republic of Ireland v Armenia, Ukraine v Scotland
Finally some positivity from the home nations. Scotland are striving to get into League A and have picked up six points from three games. Admittedly, that may put them in a false position as they still have to play group leaders Ukraine twice, but if they can beat them, as they failed to do in the World Cup play-off, they could be set to top the table.
The Republic of Ireland will be relegated if they lose both matches, but all eyes will be on that double header between Scotland and Ukraine to determine who tops the group. With no World Cup this year, the Nations League is vital for Scotland.
League C, Group 2 fixtures:
Saturday, 24 September: Northern Ireland v Kosovo (17:00 BST), Cyprus v Greece (19:45 BST)
Tuesday, 27 September (19:45 BST): Greece v Northern Ireland, Kosovo v Cyprus
Northern Ireland are also in danger of relegation. They’ll currently sit third and will be safe if they can better Cyprus’ results over the final two games, but they are yet to win a Nations League match. You can expect both Cyprus and Northern Ireland to lose to Greece, who have won four from four and sealed promotion, which means it will come down to their performances against Kosovo.
Ian Baraclough’s side boast home advantage in Saturday’s fixture, but if they fail to get anything from that, the writing will be on the wall unless Cyprus fall to two defeats. They may be in trouble, but they will be given a second chance even if they finish bottom.
They will enter the relegation play-offs, to be played in March, with the other basement boys of League C to determine which two teams are relegated to join the likes of San Marino in the bottom tier. It’s not a place you want to end up and Northern Ireland can secure their safety over the next week.