Uefa Nations League: From Spain to Andorra the verdict is a thumbs up
Early cynicism of the new tournament has been washed away in a flurry of goals and competitive football
Shortly after half-time on Tuesday night in Elche, Spain’s Marco Asensio, a young man on a mission, slid out a through-ball inviting his teammate Rodrigo to test his pace against Domagoj Vida and then his poise against Croatia’s advancing goalkeeper, Lovre Kalinic.
Rodrigo won both duels and, in doing so, converted the 100th goal of the Uefa Nations League.
Across Europe, there would be another six to come that night, as a new competition closed out its largely successful arrival on the calendar of international football.
There were some fetching headline stories, not least Spain’s 6-0 demolition of a Croatia who only two months ago finished second at the World Cup.
There was a high standard of entertainment, from Luxembourg - high-scoring Luxembourg in this fresh format - to London.
Goals came at a rate just under 2.3 per fixture, a shade less than the frequency enjoyed through Russia’s much-applauded World Cup.
But then that tournament did not have to put up with the party-poopers of Italy, who managed just one goal, a penalty against Poland, in their first two Nations League outings, and no shots at all on target from any of their strikers.
If the hoped-for Italian renaissance evidently has a long way to run, the Nations League, greeted with some cynicism when it was proposed, looks like a boost for many, big and small.
The intention had been to inject competitive edge into those dates on the diary usually filled by friendlies and to guarantee that European countries, whose priority over the season will still be the qualifiers for major tournaments - either the World Cup or European championship - have regular matches against nations of a similar standard.
Spain’s 6-0 against Croatia, and Switzerland’s bruising of Iceland by the same scoreline might have you wondering whether the gap between those teams has widened so alarmingly since the World Cup that the losers were not taking this September’s work so seriously.
But the jeopardy is genuine: the Croatians and Icelanders now face up to the prospect of relegation from Nations League A, the top bracket, unless they can bounce back next month.
The verdict from most coaches on the Nations League is positive. The contests were not allowed to meander into disjointed final half-hours by a rafts of substitutions, a condition that afflicts friendly games, and the refereeing was largely rigorous, to which players responded.
Witness the England outrage when the World Cup semi-finalists had what they supposed was a late equaliser in their 2-1 defeat to Spain at Wembley Stadium ruled out.
They seethed long into the post-match interview sessions. Had the loss happened in a friendly, tempers would have cooled before then
Spain, whose national team are in a need of a boost, will already be eyeing a place in the mini-tournament that gives this novel event its showpiece climax, a pair of semi-finals and a final in June.
So might France, the world champions, after taking four points from their games against Germany and the Netherlands. But it is down football's food-chain that the real benefits of the Nations League are felt.
Here, in League’s B, C, D the carrot of a possible place in the play-offs for the 2020 European Championship finals - a backstop option, if you like, in case the normal qualifying for that event goes awry - is a real motivator, and the opportunities to measure progress against teams of a similar ranking is a bonus.
This has been a terrific week for Andorra, with their Nations League draws against Latvia and Kazakhstan, the latter 1-1 thanks to an 86th minute equaliser from one Jordi Alvaez, whose only previous goals for his country had been achieved on sand. He also plays beach football for Andorra.
His strike on Tuesday was a grand moment in the mountains. Some context: In 50 European championship qualifiers over the last 20 years, Andorra, always the lowest seeds in their groups, have never won so much as a single point.
Yet the tiny Pyrennean state had believed they were developing real nous in international football. It looks like they are. Last month’s goalless draw in a friendly against the UAE had hinted at progress and that has now been confirmed.
“The Nations League has been a great idea,” said Koldo Alvarez, Andorra’s head coach, and, as their former goalkeeper, a man who spent 11 years stretching in vain to reach shots from Europe's superstar strikers.
He will be taking his team to Georgia and Kazakhstan next month for the kind of team-talks that were never possible before.
He will tell his players that they really can dream of a possible route to the next European Championships.
Updated: September 12, 2018 04:46 PM