As the domestic season is halted in favour of some international action, the UEFA Nations League gets its opportunity to introduce itself to fans across the globe.
There’s no doubt that it will serve up several points for discussion but here’s a look at some ahead of the fixtures.
LEROY SANE’S RETURN
Don’t call it a comeback. He’s been here for years. Well, maybe just the three years since his international debut but it was still a shock when Leroy Sane was left out of Joachim Low’s World Cup squad in the summer.
The 22-year-old winger enjoyed the finest season of his blossoming career as he was one of the star performers in Manchester City’s title-winning campaign last term. In light of that, the Premier League Young Player of the Year’s omission from the German squad that travelled to Russia was controversial to say the least.
For a young talent, there’s no telling what impact that may have had on his confidence. However, the fact that he’s been so poor in the new campaign despite enjoying a full pre-season that Pep Guardiola has only afforded him 30 minutes of playing time so far, is surely some indication.
Germany certainly missed his services at the World Cup as they struggled to generate genuine width in their efforts to break down weaker opposition and suffered a shock group-stage elimination.
Having received the nod for the 2014 champions ahead of their UEFA Nations League fixture with France on Thursday, Sane will have a point to prove.
A FRESH START FOR ITALY
For all the scandals that have plagued Italian football, their failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup after a 1-0 aggregate defeat to Sweden on November 13 last year will undoubtedly go down as one of their darkest days.
What followed, almost instantaneously, was a mass exodus with Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli, Daniele De Rossi and captain Gianluigi Buffon all announcing their retirements from the international stage. Head coach Gian Piero Ventura was dismissed two days later.
New manager Roberto Mancini has won his first match in charge when Italy beat Saudi Arabia 2-1 in May but that was a mere two weeks following his appointment. Having had time to gather his bearings now, their clash with Poland on Friday will carry far more weight.
The new-look Azzurri have plenty of work to do and apart from Leonardo Bonucci and the returning Chiellini, have little in terms of experience to cope with the task ahead. Mancini’s squad now boasts a wealth of creative and attacking players, leading many to wonder about the kind of football he intends to produce.
The midfield in particular is lacking in steel with Chelsea’s pass master Jorginho marshalling that area of the pitch instead, supported by the likes of Marco Benassi and Giacomo Bonaventura. Not least among the many questionable selections is the inclusion of the erratic Mario Balotelli.
Mancini’s every move will come under scrutiny and a good performance against Poland will go a long way to easing a nation’s anxiety.
TALE OF TWO LEFT-BACKS
It’s been a long road back into the England fold for Luke Shaw. Having earned his international debut in 2014, he suffered a potential career-ending injury when he broke his leg the following year.
After a lengthy and frustrating rehabilitation process, he’s had to fight and claw his way into first-team contention at Manchester United.
This season, he’s been the club’s best player and voted their Player of the Month for August, even drawing praise from Jose Mourinho who’s been heavily critical of him in the past. A call-up to the England squad from Gareth Southgate is just reward.
When the Three Lions take on Spain on Saturday, the left-back story in the opposition camp is a different and perhaps cynical one. New La Roja manager Luis Enrique caused quite a stir last week when he left Jordi Alba out of his squad.
The Barcelona left-back established himself in the national team set-up in 2012 and has been a mainstay ever since, amassing 66 caps. However, the 29-year-old had a falling out with Enrique towards the end of the latter’s reign at the Blaugrana and that is being cited as the reason for his surprising exclusion.
“I don’t have any problems with anyone on a professional level. It’s a decision which Luis Enrique has taken but I don’t know why I haven’t been called up,” Alba said in response to the suggestion.
The full-back starred in Barcelona’s 8-2 thumping of Huesca over the weekend, scoring a goal and assisting another. There’s clearly nothing wrong with his form and it will be interesting to see if Enrique’s bold move backfires.
There are always groans when the domestic football action is disturbed just weeks into the new season with the introduction of an international break.
But whereas the monotony of meaningless friendlies can rightly irk club managers and supporters alike, there is definitely something a little more exciting to look forward to in the fledgling UEFA Nations League.
It feels very much like a Champions League-style competition for international sides, with group games kicking off this week and the knockout stages to follow and be completed by the summer of 2019.
European behemoths Germany, Portugal, Belgium, Spain, France, England, Switzerland, Italy, Poland, Croatia, the Netherlands, as well as Iceland, are the elite 12 nations competing in the top tier of the tournament.
Here we look at five young players to look out for as the tournament action in League A kicks off on Thursday.
Club: Bayer Leverkusen
Position: Attacking midfielder
Senior caps: 0
Considering the buzz surrounding all-action Leverkusen midfielder Havertz, it’s surprising to discover it’s been a rather rapid one – he was not part of the Germany squad that won the European Under-21 Championship in Poland last year for example.
In fact, he has never represented his nation at a higher level than his current age. Yet the man who only turned 19 in June became the youngest player in Bundesliga history to reach 50 appearances last season and won the coveted Fritz Walter Medal at U19 level.
He was awarded the silver U-17 Fritz Walter Medal in 2016 before breaking into Leverkusen’s senior side the following year.
The Aachen-born prodigy has a game which has been likened to Leverkusen legend and former Germany midfielder Michael Ballack – not afraid to go in where it hurts at either end of the pitch.
His club boss Heiko Herrlich has labelled him “the biggest talent I have seen since Toni Kroos”.
A bold statement, but his stats back up the praise – his 96 per cent pass success rate in the early throes of 2018/19 lead the Bundesliga and he has grabbed seven goals and 15 assists in just 39 league starts.
Donny van de Beek
Position: Central/defensive midfield
Senior caps: 4
Dutch giants Ajax were ravaged by Roma this summer – Hakim Ziyech and Justin Kluivert deciding the time was right to make the next step in their careers.
Another prodigious talent the Giallorossi were also keen on prying from the clutches of the Amsterdam outfit was tenacious defensive midfielder Van de Beek – but the 21-year-old rejected the overtures of the Serie A side, claiming that Ajax is the right place for his development.
It’s not hard to see why clubs would be interested in a player who has four Oranje senior caps. Despite his role as a central midfielder, Van de Beek is afforded much more licence to roam forward for Ajax – as evidenced by his 13 goals in 39 total appearances last season.
That included 11 goals and six assists in the Eredevisie – he trailed only David Neres (14) and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar (13) in the goalscoring stakes for Ajax and, in November, scored a hat-trick in an 8-0 league victory against NAC Breda.
Roma are not the only big side to have taken notice, with Barcelona and Bayern Munich believed to be interested.
Position: Right-back/right wing
Senior caps: 0
The 6ft 1in Belgian is a modern-day right-back in the truest sense, affecting the game at both ends of the pitch. He impressed on his Serie A bow last term – making 26 appearances for the Goddess and scoring one goal. The hope is the Belgian U-21 international will build on that and he is going the right away about it as he has already matched his goalscoring exploits in just two league outings this term – scoring an equaliser in the 3-3 draw against Roma at the Stadio Olimpico.
Atalanta signed Castagne from Genk last summer as a replacement for AC Milan-bound Andrea Conti. He scored two goals in 10 Europa League games during 2016/17 as Genk impressively reached the quarter-finals.
He was second only to Robin Gosens in tackles per game last season (2.7) while his 1.5 blocks per game leads the way for the Bergamo-based club this term.
Senior caps: 0
A terrier-like talent who has been likened to Marek Hamsik and Radja Nainggolan, Barella is an energetic midfielder with plenty of substance, equally adept at forcing turnovers and flipping defence into attack as he is spraying balls out to the flanks.
The marauding midfielder has made steady progress through the Rossoblu’s ranks ever since debuting in Serie A just after his 18th birthday at the end of the 2014/15 season.
He’s gone on to make over 60 appearances for the Sardinians and enjoyed a breakout 2017/18 campaign in which he scored six league goals.
Barella has long been pegged as a future regular at international level for Italy, having represented the Azzurri with aplomb at every level from Under-15 all the way up to the U-21s. And now could be the time for him to make the step up to the elite, with national team boss Roberto Mancini looking to breathe life back into the Azzurri after a disastrous failed bid to make the 2018 World Cup finals – the first time in 60 years the four-time champions had not appeared.
Barella has a slew of admirers, including Inter and Roma in Italy, as well as Lyon, Liverpool and Atletico Madrid further afield.
Club: Atletico Madrid
Position: Central/defensive midfield
Senior caps: 1
Los Rojiblancos realised the error of their ways this summer when they re-signed academy graduate Rodrigo Hernandez – commonly known as Rodri – from Villarreal for the princely sum of €20 million, plus €5m in variables.
For someone Atleti discarded in 2013 due to a “lack of physical strength”, the 22-year-old enjoyed a dominant 2017/18 campaign for the Yellow Submarine.
The busy central midfielder led Villarreal in a plethora of categories including average passes per game (66.8), pass accuracy (90.1 per cent), as well as aerials won (2.7), while his 2.8 tackles per game was second only to Mario Gaspar – evidence of his supreme all-round game and making a mockery of Madrid’s earlier folly in letting him go.
After playing for Spain at U-16, U-19 and U-21 levels, Rodri was first called up to the senior side in March this year for the friendlies with Germany and Argentina. He made his debut in the 1-1 draw against Die Mannschaft in Dusseldorf, replacing Thiago Alcantara.
There may be a lot of talent ahead of him in La Roja’s ranks but with the retirement of Andres Iniesta and the need to lighten the load on Barcelona pivot Sergio Busquets, Rodri could well have arrived at just the right time.
Kieran Trippier believes England have earned a warm Wembley welcome when they host Spain on Saturday and is eager to land a big result to keep the feel good factor going.
The Three Lions’ run to the semi-finals of the World Cup united the nation this summer, restoring public affection after several tournaments that succeeded only in eroding the side’s status.
On Saturday, almost two months after their agonising exit to Croatia in Moscow, fans have the chance to show their appreciation at the opening fixture of the new Nations League competition.
“Somebody said it’s nearly sold out and that’s a good feeling, hopefully we get a good reception,” said Trippier, whose fine displays at right wing-back made him one of England’s breakout stars.
“I think we did well in Russia, so hopefully we can keep performing and put smiles on people’s faces.
“After the World Cup, the fans realised how much it means to the players here to represent England. We love coming here every opportunity that we get and we want our performances on the field to show how much it means to us.
“We were happy to put a smile on the nation’s face again but we have got another tough task ahead of us and hopefully we can make many more memories.”
For all England’s clear progress under Gareth Southgate, the feeling lingers that a major scalp is required to take the team to the next level.
There have been creditable draws with Germany, Brazil and Italy – as well as a 2-2 scoreline when the Spaniards last visited London – but they have found it difficult to put away elite opposition.
For Trippier, that leaves a clear target.
“We need to beat the very best and Spain are certainly one of the best,” he said.
“We want to play the likes of Spain to show that we are here and we are ready. It’ll be a tough test but we know the quality we have got in our dressing room and on our day we can beat anyone.”
Trippier has already transferred some of his World Cup form to Tottenham in the early weeks on the season, recreating his opening goal in the semi-final by lashing home a free-kick against Fulham.
Harry Kane, the golden boot winner in Russia, also scored in that game but questions marks linger over his heavy workload and potential for burnout.
Both Spurs and England rely increasingly heavily on the 25-year-old but Trippier is confident the striker can keep producing.
“I’m not concerned, he’s first in and last out (of training). He recovers well and everybody knows Harry’s a top professional,” said Trippier.
“I can’t see him slowing down, you’ve seen his work-rate in the games we’ve played this season. He’s as fit as anything.”