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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 October 2018

Nations League talking points: Troubled Italy turn to 'Atomic Ant', Belgium could plump for two Hazards

Ian Hawkey picks out some fixtures to keep an eye on for the latest round of Nations League matches

Sebastian Giovinco, right, has been recalled to the Italy squad for the first time since 2015. Reuters
Sebastian Giovinco, right, has been recalled to the Italy squad for the first time since 2015. Reuters

Mancini goes Atomic

It is a year now since Italy scored a goal from open play in a competitive international. A change of manager, following the failure to qualify for the last World Cup, has not yet solved the drought, so new man Roberto Mancini, having begun with a draw and a defeat, is spreading the net. And the clock is ticking: Italy are bottom of their mini-league, and, should Portugal defeat Poland on Thursday, they will trail the group leaders by six points with two fixtures left.

Dropped from the last round of games are strikers Mario Balotelli and Andrea Belotti, among those brought in the so-called "Atomic Ant", Sebastian Giovinco, all 1.64m of him, a recall Giovinco had begun to believe was never going to happen. The former Juventus striker, who has 23 caps, has not played for his country for three years, and although he has been scoring club goals at a fine rate, his club was off-putting to Mancini’s predecessors.

Both previous manager Giampiero Ventura, and, before him, Antonio Conte, used to be openly sceptical about the level of the North American MLS, where Giovinco stars for Toronto, and where he has racked up 82 goals in 140 games since the beginning of 2015. Eight of those goals have come in his last 10 MLS matches. “We’ve been following his form,” said Mancini, “and we want to see him close up.” His first chance comes on Wednesday in the friendly against Ukraine in Genoa, ahead of Sunday's Nations League trip to Poland.

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Belgian forward Thorgan Hazard, left, was instrumental in Borussia Monchengladbach's win over Bayern Munich at the weekend. AFP
Belgian forward Thorgan Hazard, left, was instrumental in Borussia Monchengladbach's win over Bayern Munich at the weekend. AFP

Belgium’s brilliant brotherhood

You want goals? Group 2 of League A is where to look. Belgium, having thumped Iceland 3-0 in their opening fixture last month, take on Switzerland, who put six past the Icelanders, with the manager of the World Cup bronze medallists, Roberto Martinez, confronted with compelling arguments to line up not one but two prolific Hazards.

Captain Eden’s star is soaring, thanks to his dazzling start to the season with Chelsea, for whom he has eight goals already. The next most in-form Belgian? Not Romelu Lukaku, who is without a Manchester United goal in almost 10 hours of action; not Michy Batshuayi, who has just one goal since his summer loan move to Valencia from Chelsea; nor Dries Mertens, whose electric last 18 months at Napoli has eased off, with just two goals in 2018/19.

Step forward, from his wide midfield position, Thorgan Hazard, who, at 25, is two years Eden’s junior and once upon a time was his brother's rarely-glimpsed understudy at Chelsea. But Hazard the younger has been thriving at Borussia Monchengladbach since returning from the World Cup. He has six goals in eight games so far, and played a conspicuous part in the weekend’s 3-0 triumph over Bayern Munich.

Bad mince in Minsk

Down in Group D, where the lowest-ranked countries reside, there's a high-stakes fixture with a nasty aftertaste left over from a previous meeting. Luxembourg, who used to be international football’s notorious punchbags, sit top of their mini-league, with six points from two games so far, and are nursing genuine hopes of a play-off entry via the Nations League to the finals of Euro 2020.

But Friday’s away game against Belarus looks a tougher test than little Luxembourg's victories so far, over San Marino and Moldova. “We’ll be taking every precaution,” declares Luxembourgeois manager Luc Holtz, adding that his preparations included overseeing the catering. He and several of his players have bad memories of the last time they were in Belarus, for a Euro 2016 qualifier and 16 of them suffered terrible upset stomachs the evening before a 2-0 defeat.

A hotel dinner in Minsk, and specifically a meat sauce on their pasta was blamed for the epidemic of food poisoning. Suspicions lingered about possible foul play. “Who knows?” said Holtz, recalling the episode. “Nothing could be proved.”

All to play for in Podgorica

Twelve years after Montenegro celebrated its independence from Serbia, the two countries meet in an official international for the first time. Leadership of League 3 in Group C is at issue, with the Balkan heavyweights (Serbia, population: 7 million) and their neighbouring punch-above-their-weights (the Montenegro of 630,000 citizens) both on four points, separated by Montenegro’s better goal difference.

They went to the 2006 World Cup as one nation, Serbia and Montenegro, an era recent enough for Montenegro captain Stevan Jovetic to recall vividly. He was winning his first junior caps for Serbia and Montenegro at the time. Recently recovered from a calf problem, Jovetic, the former Fiorentina, Sevilla, Manchester City, Inter Milan and now Monaco striker, hopes to win his 51st cap for one of Europe’s younger states.