Na­tions League: 10 things to look out for in the in­ter­na­tional matches

The Guardian Australia - - Sport - Si­mon Burn­ton, Gregg Bakowski and Ja­cob Stein­berg

1) Mon­tene­gro and Ser­bia make his­tory

Twelve years af­ter Mon­tene­gro achieved in­de­pen­dence and 11 years af­ter they were for­mally recog­nised by Fifa, they meet Ser­bia for the first time. The match is, ac­cord­ing to goal­keeper Dani­jel Petkovic, the big­gest in the na­tion’s his­tory. Af­ter two games the teams are level on points at the top of Group C4, adding com­pet­i­tive edge to an al­ready spicy en­counter. Ser­bia are far from full strength: Crys­tal Palace’s Luka Milivo­je­vic is one of sev­eral play­ers to have dropped out of the squad since the World Cup af­ter fall­ing out with the man­ager, Mladen Krsta­jic, while the cap­tain, Ne­manja Matic, is in­jured. “Our am­bi­tions re­main the same,” said Krsta­jic, who re­vealed: “Matic will most likely come to Pod­gor­ica to see us be­cause his boss is com­ing.” Given that José Mour­inho can­not be mon­i­tor­ing Matic’s per­for­mance it has height­ened spec­u­la­tion about a pos­si­ble move for one of Ser­bia’s young stars, the Fiorentina de­fender Nikola Milenkovic and the Lazio mid­fielder Sergej MilinkovicSavic. SB

2) A World Cup semi-fi­nal re­play Eng­land will have re­venge on their mind when they visit Croa­tia in the Na­tions League on Fri­day night. “We know what hap­pened in the sum­mer,” Harry Kane said. “It will be nice to try and get our own back.” Yet while Croa­tia lost 6-0 to Spain in their first game in Group A4, it will not be easy for Eng­land to flush their World Cup semi­fi­nal de­feat to Zlatko Dalic’s side out of their sys­tem. For Gareth South­gate, the con­cern will be that his team will strug­gle to dom­i­nate pos­ses­sion again. When these sides met in Moscow, the game turned when Croa­tia took con­trol of mid­field in the sec­ond half and Dalic will have noted that Eng­land were out­passed in their de­feat by Spain last month. It re­mains an is­sue for South­gate, who will hope Ross Barkley can bring his Chelsea form to the in­ter­na­tional stage. Barkley has not played for Eng­land for more than two years but the mid­fielder has started to show more tac­ti­cal aware­ness and greater dis­ci­pline since Mau­r­izio Sarri’s ar­rival at Chelsea. JS

• Eng­land play­ers warned to watch what they say against Croa­tia

3) Koe­man’s hun­gry pups to reignite ri­valry

Nether­lands v Ger­many is a fix­ture drip­ping in his­tory – one of the big­gest ri­val­ries in world foot­ball. But with the Dutch hav­ing failed to win a game against their near-neigh­bours in 16 years, it has not felt that way for some time. A 2-1 win against Peru and a cred­itable 2-1 loss against France in Paris, how­ever, have given Ron­ald Koe­man’s side hope of breath­ing some life back into the flatlin­ing fix­ture on Satur­day. Koe­man’s squad for the games against Ger­many and Bel­gium in­cludes four pos­si­ble debu­tants, among them the 21-year-old Ar­naut Dan­juma Groen­eveld of Club Brugge, a supremely ta­lented at­tacker who scored an as­ton­ish­ing goal from 25 yards against Atlético Madrid last week. On home soil, they are more than ca­pa­ble of ex­pos­ing a Ger­many side that is still to prove the hu­mil­i­at­ing firstround World Cup exit was a blip rather than the start of an on­go­ing malaise. GB

4) A hint of the old magic in Slo­vakia v Czech Repub­lic

Be­tween 1994 – when Fifa launched their rank­ings – and 2015 the Czech Repub­lic rarely dropped out of the world’s top 30. They peaked at No 2 in 1999 and reached the Euro­pean Cham­pi­onship fi­nal in 1996 and semi-fi­nals

in 2004. Those tri­umphs seem very dis­tant: they are cur­rently 47th, last month they lost 2-1 at home to Ukraine and 5-1 in Rus­sia, and they go into Satur­day’s Fed­eral derby at a low ebb. But their new man­ager, Jaroslav Sil­havy, was the as­sis­tant dur­ing Karel Brück­ner’s suc­cess­ful spell in the noughties and is hop­ing to bring a bit of that magic back – with the help of his former boss. “He’s got noth­ing much to do now ex­cept gar­den­ing,” Sil­havy said, “so he watches foot­ball. We talk a lot, about foot­ball and ev­ery­thing.” The pair were in the dugout on the only pre­vi­ous oc­ca­sion the Czechs won in Slo­vakia, in 2006. Brück­ner is now 78 but may yet be tempted fur­ther from his gar­den – Sil­havy is to dis­cuss with his as­so­ci­a­tion “the pos­si­bil­ity of greater co­op­er­a­tion”. SB

5) Pro­lific Pi­atek lifts Lewandowski’s bur­den

There will be no Cris­tiano Ron­aldo, who was left out of Por­tu­gal’s squad af­ter a rape al­le­ga­tion was made against him, though their man­ager, Fer­nando San­tos, said he “be­lieves com­pletely” the player’s de­nial. In his place starseek­ers will turn to the man who more than Ron­aldo is tak­ing Serie A by storm this sea­son, Poland’s Krzysztof Pi­atek. The 23-year-old made his in­ter­na­tional de­but against Ire­land last month and his form since ar­riv­ing at Genoa for €4.5m in the sum­mer – he has scored 13 goals in eight games – is sen­sa­tional. No longer, it seems, must Robert Lewandowski, who will win his 100th cap in this game and has scored in 10 of Poland’s 11 vic­to­ries since Euro 2016, carry his coun­try’s goalscor­ing bur­den on his own. SB

6) Scot­land must keep Celtic-con­quer­ing Dabour at bay

Hav­ing beaten Al­ba­nia 2-0 in their Na­tions League opener the com­pe­ti­tion of­fers Scot­land a re­al­is­tic chance of an al­ter­na­tive route into Euro 2020. But in Haifa, where they face Is­rael on Thurs­day, they will come up against Moanes Dabour, a ra­zor-sharp for­ward who has very re­cent his­tory of dous­ing Scot­tish hopes. The striker scored twice for Red Bull Salzburg in the 3-1 de­feat of Celtic a week ago and, with 15 goals in 19 games this sea­son, he is in the best form of his ca­reer. The good news for Scot­land is that Is­rael are not quite so in­tim­i­dat­ing as the un­beaten Aus­tri­ans. They have won only one game in their last 10, against tiny Liecht­en­stein. They also lost their Na­tions League opener against Al­ba­nia, whom Alex McLeish’s team brushed aside. GB

7) Rus­sia’s re­nais­sance to con­tinue?

Swe­den head to Kal­in­grad on Thurs­day ranked 31 places higher than their hosts but Rus­sia, in 46th, look well-placed to make a mock­ery of the Fifa stand­ings. Stanislav Cherch­esov’s team have con­tin­ued to ride the wave of op­ti­mism cre­ated by an im­pres­sive run to the World Cup quar­ter-fi­nals. They won a tricky Na­tions League game away at Turkey 2–1 and fol­lowed this up with a crush­ing 5-1 friendly vic­tory over the Czech Repub­lic in Ros­tov. When their cap­tain at the World Cup, the goal­keeper Igor Ak­in­feev, re­tired this month, he said: “A very good gen­er­a­tion has ap­peared in Rus­sia.” They mostly play in Rus­sia too, where the do­mes­tic game was given a huge lift by CSKA Moscow’s 1-0 de­feat of Real Madrid in the Cham­pi­ons League. Swe­den have lost both of their matches since mak­ing the last eight at the World Cup and they will likely lose their third if Rus­sia con­tinue their form. GB

8) Petkov proves that any­thing is pos­si­ble at 42

In July Ge­orgi Petkov be­came the sec­ond old­est player to ap­pear in the Europa League and the fol­low­ing month the Slavia Sofia goal­keeper broke the record for the old­est player in the Bul­gar­ian top flight. He was only half-jok­ing when he sug­gested a re­turn to in­ter­na­tional foot­ball, a stage he had not graced for nearly a decade, was still pos­si­ble. By mid-Septem­ber he had kept four con­sec­u­tive clean sheets, and last week the call came. Pla­men Iliev, who was out­stand­ing in the 2-1 vic­tory over Slove­nia last month, re­mains Bul­garia’s first-choice keeper but Petkov could make an ap­pear­ance against Cyprus, swept along by a wave of sen­ti­men­tal sup­port. If so, at 42 years and 211 days he would be­come the fourthold­est in­ter­na­tional in top-level Euro­pean foot­ball (af­ter the Greeks Gior­gos Koudas and Vasilis Hatzi­panagis and Billy Mered­ith of Wales). SB

9) Ir­ish sighs as Den­mark visit

The Repub­lic of Ire­land have un­happy mem­o­ries of their last meet­ing with Den­mark, who sealed their World Cup place with a thump­ing play-off vic­tory in Dublin last year. Chris­tian Erik­sen scored a bril­liant hat-trick as Den­mark romped to a 5-1 win, leav­ing Martin O’Neill with an almighty mess on his hands. Un­for­tu­nately for O’Neill, clean­ing it up has not been easy. His team’s self-be­lief has all but evap­o­rated. They lost 4-1 to Wales in their Na­tions League opener last month and the mood has not been helped by re­ports of Roy Keane, O’Neill’s as­sis­tant, fall­ing out with se­nior play­ers, or by young tal­ent De­clan Rice sit­ting this one out while he de­cides whether to switch to Eng­land. Still, Harry Arter is back in the fold af­ter his dis­pute with Keane and Erik­sen is a doubt for Den­mark. JS

• Erik­sen could have chronic ab­dom­i­nal prob­lem, says Hareide

10) Mov­sisyan re­turns to help ‘a new free Ar­me­nia’

Born in Azer­bai­jan to Ar­me­nian par­ents, Yura Mov­sisyan moved to the United States as a child, his fam­ily refugees. He set his sights on the US na­tional team but even­tu­ally switched al­le­giance. “To play for Ar­me­nia, to see what it means to the peo­ple there, there’s no bet­ter feel­ing,” he said. Then came a con­tro­ver­sial de­feat to Al­ba­nia in Euro 2016 qual­i­fy­ing. In the Ser­bian me­dia talk of match­fix­ing swirled; Ruben Hayrapetyan, the head of the Ar­me­nian FA, lashed out at his team. A group of play­ers in­clud­ing Mov­sisyan and Hen­rikh Mkhi­taryan re­leased a state­ment de­scrib­ing ru­mours of match-fix­ing as “to­tally false” but Hayrapetyan said he would not select Mov­sisyan again. Last month Hayrapetyan was re­placed by Ar­tur Vanet­syan, and Mov­sisyan, who re­cently signed for Chicago Fire, is back in the squad for the matches against Gi­bral­tar and Mace­do­nia. SB

Clock­wise from top left: Harry Kane, Dani­jel Petkovic, Moanes Dabour, Ge­orgi Petkov, MartinO’Neill, Roy Keane, Krzysztof Pi­atek and Ron­ald Koe­man are in Na­tions League mode. Com­pos­ite: Getty/Inpho/Rex/Shut­ter­stock

The in-form Dutch for­ward Ar­naut Dan­juma Groen­eveld scored a bril­liant goal forClub Brugge against Atlético Madrid. Pho­to­graph: Shot for Press/Ac­tion Plus via GettyIm­ages

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