The first international break of 2019 is complete and this weekend will bring the return of Premier League football.
After the brilliant 2018 World Cup was followed by the excitement of the Nations League in October and November, the first games of European Championship qualifying were never likely to contain quite the level of excitement we have become used to in recent international breaks.
But after a mixed start for the home nations, what have we learned over the past week?
We actually miss the Nations League
Uefa’s introduction of the Nations League was greeted with plenty of scepticism and no little confusion. Did we really need another tournament? And how did it even work?
But hostility towards the concept decreased as that competition progressed. It threw up some brilliant matches – a raucous Wembley watched in jubilation as England came from behind to beat Croatia in the last few minutes in November, while the Netherlands continued their resurgence when a 90th-minute Virgil van Dijk volley relegated Germany. Germany!
Those late goals were indicative of the competitiveness of the matches, with full-strength teams selected and managers and players going all out for victory right until the end.
One key aspect of the Nations League’s success was that it pitted teams of a similar standard against each other – England played Spain and Croatia, while world champions France faced Germany and the Netherlands.
It meant genuinely competitive games – and a high standard.
Add the fact that each group would be decided after only four matches, and there was an element of jeopardy to every game.
That significance – the knowledge that a single defeat could be campaign-ending – just does not exist in European Championship qualifying.
Yes, Scotland’s loss Kazakhstan was humiliating. But they still have time to get themselves back on track, with eight matches to play following their subsequent win over San Marino.
Also, this round of fixtures provided few really notable shocks. All the big teams won – France, England, Spain, Belgium and Italy all picked up maximum points, while the Netherlands and Germany faced each other – the latter edging it 3-2 in Amsterdam with a last-minute winner.
The very nature of qualifying – the top two teams in each group progressing to the finals, plus the safety net for some sides of a play-off place – means the road to Euro 2020 could feel like a long one.
The minnows might be narrowing the gap
While the Nations League’s tiered format meant high-profile matches at the top end, it was also hoped it would give Europe’s minnows meaningful fixtures against other smaller nations. There is more to be gained for Gibraltar, say, by beating Liechtenstein 2-1 than getting smashed 8-1 by Poland, so the theory went.
And during these first Euro 2020 qualifying matches, there was enough evidence to suggest the gap between Europe’s lowest-ranked teams and those above them is narrowing.
Gibraltar, ranked 194th in the world, were beaten only 1-0 by the Republic of Ireland and had chances of their own to score. The two teams met in qualifying for the last European Championship, when the Republic won 7-0 and 4-0.
Kazakhstan, ranked 117th, caused the major shock so far, beating Scotland 3-0 in their opening game. It was a terrible result for Alex McLeish’s side but it was continued progress for the Kazakhs, who were unbeaten in four of their six Nations League games against Georgia, Latvia and Andorra, having previously won only one of 20 tournament qualifying matches.
And Poland, who played in the top tier in the Nations League, were given a huge scare by Latvia, from that tournament’s bottom tier.
The Latvians, ranked 131st in the world and with just two wins from their previous 26 matches, were level in Warsaw until the 76th minute, when the Poles were spared embarrassment by strikes from Robert Lewandowski and Kamil Glik.
It is early days but there are signs that the gulf may not be as wide as it once was.
Picture has already changed significantly for home nations
We may be only two games in (for most teams, at least) to this qualifying process but already the picture is starting to become a little clearer for the home nations.
Two wins out of two means England are rated by analysts Gracenote as having a 99% chance of qualifying directly for the Euros.
Wales’ win in their only game so far, against a Slovakia side seen as their main rivals for automatic qualification in a group also containing top seeds Croatia, has increased their prospects of a top-two finish from 48% to 64%.
Northern Ireland’s final four games in Group C are double headers against Germany and the Netherlands, so they always knew they needed to get off to a strong start. Their back-to-back wins over Estonia and Belarus have seen their chances of finishing in the top two increase from 15% to 29%, according to Gracenote.
Scotland have the luxury of a play-off place to fall back on because of their performance in the Nations League – and they might well need it.
When the draw was made, they were rated as having a 43% chance of finishing first or second in a group also featuring Belgium and Russia. Their dismal 3-0 loss in Kazakhstan and subsequent stuttering 2-0 win in San Marino has seen their chances drop significantly, to 17%.
If you’re facing a Ramos penalty, just stand still
One day soon, a goalkeeper is going to stand still when Sergio Ramos takes a penalty and the Real Madrid captain is going to look a bit silly.
But for now, it is the Spain captain who continues to outfox keepers from 12 yards, scoring a fifth ‘Panenka’ – chipping the ball straight down the middle – of the season against Norway.
Here’s the full rundown of his nine penalties so far in 2018-19:
For Real Madrid unless stated
- 15 August – 4-2 extra-time defeat by Atletico Madrid in Uefa Super Cup – bottom right corner
- 26 August – 4-1 win at Girona in La Liga – Panenka
- 1 September – 4-1 win over Leganes in La Liga – placed to right
- 3 November – 2-0 win over Real Valladolid in La Liga – Panenka
- 11 November – 4-2 win at Celta Vigo in La Liga – Panenka
- 9 January – 3-0 win over Leganes in Copa del Rey – bottom left corner
- 24 January – 4-2 win over Girona in Copa del Rey – Panenka
- 9 February – 3-1 win over Atletico Madrid in La Liga – bottom left corner
- 23 March – (for Spain) 2-1 win over Norway in European Championship qualifier – Panenka
Perhaps even more remarkably, it was Ramos’s 16th goal of the season for club and country.