Portugal pair Bernardo Silva and Cristiano Ronaldo among our top five Nations League performers

Matt Jones 12/06/2019
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The inaugural Nations League has drawn to a close and, in addition to providing extra opportunities for teams to qualify for the 2020 European Championships, it’s returned an element of relevance to international football.

Portugal, so often bridesmaids over the last two decades, added the Nations League jewel to their Euro 2016 crown with a commanding 1-0 victory over the Netherlands in Sunday’s final in Porto.

But over the course of the competition – which started as a four-tiered, 55-team, 16-group structure in September – there were many standout individual performances and virtuoso displays.

Here we rate the top performers over the course of the tournament.

BERNARDO SILVA (PORTUGAL)

Bernardo Silva

What a player. It takes an almighty effort to upstage Cristiano Ronaldo – especially on the international stage. But it was the diminutive playmaker rather than the gargantuan powerhouse who proved pivotal to a picturesque Nations League finale for Portugal at the Estadio do Dragao.

Silva – who is also doing likewise at club level, having enjoyed a stunning season with Manchester City – electrified the finals. His control of a high, hanging ball and subsequent vision to set up the game-clinching second goal against Switzerland overshadowed the finish from Ronaldo to make it 2-1 in the semis.

And despite dominating the Dutch in the final, Fernando Santos’ men seemed unable to find the key required to unlock a hard-working, stubborn defence – until an intelligent run and ingenious flick from Silva to tee up Goncalo Guedes for the winning goal.

His average 3.2 key passes per game was also fourth-best throughout the competition, while three dribbles per game was third-highest.

The fact Silva is able to shoulder such responsibility with such a minute frame, in the shadow of such a giant in Ronaldo during 90 minutes, is impressive enough.

But while his veteran colleague may retain his status as one of the two best players in the world, he now finds himself sharing the limelight internationally with Silva, a stage he has for so long hogged himself.

Silva’s performance in the final deservedly earned him not just the man-of-the-match award, but also player of the tournament.

VIRGIL VAN DIJK (NETHERLANDS)

Van Dijk

Speaking of players who’ve dominated in 2018/19, it’s hard to look past Liverpool colossus Van Dijk. The 27-year-old was a fine player while at Southampton but since signing for Liverpool in a record transfer for a defender (£75million) in January 2018, he has blossomed.

He couldn’t quite drag a dynamic and daring young Dutch side to the Nations League title to add to his Champions League triumph in his first full season with Liverpool.

But it’s been a remarkable 12 months for a player who is undoubtedly the finest defender in the world right now, and one who stands a chance of becoming the first in his position to win the Ballon d’Or since Fabio Cannavaro in 2006.

In truth, two future stars of the Dutch national team – Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong – could have featured in this list, as well as a resurgent Daley Blind, who’s played a hugely underrated part in their, and Ajax’s, successful seasons.

But it’s hard to argue against Van Dijk deserving his place, with five shots blocked (joint third), 29 clearances (joint first), 19 aerials won (joint first), a 90.2 per cent pass accuracy and 407 total passes (fifth most).

A towering presence whose performances this season have run like clockwork, he even chimed in with two goals during the Nations League.

CRISTIANO RONALDO (PORTUGAL)

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The Juventus icon actually played no part in the five goals Portugal scored in the initial group phase but, as so often during his stunning career, he turned up when it mattered.

The Madeira magician is 24 years old but shows no sign of slowing down on either the international or domestic stage. While Silva rightly took the plaudits for a magnificent man-of-the-match display in the final, it was rock star Ronaldo who got them there with a virtuoso display in the 3-1 semi-final triumph over Switzerland.

The most explosive hat-trick saw Ronaldo slice the Swiss open like the proverbial nation’s cheese to show that, although he is maturing, he remains a mesmeric player.

He got Portugal off to a fine start with a rocket of a free-kick arrowed into Yann Sommer’s bottom left corner. And, after Ricardo Rodriguez had levelled from the penalty spot, Ronaldo owned the second half; rifling in a crisp, low drive after great work from Silva before a vintage strike to complete his hat-trick, racing on to Guedes’ pass before curling beyond Sommer following a classic cut inside and a series of stepovers.

HARIS SEFEROVIC (SWITZERLAND)

Haris Seferovic

The Netherlands, Portugal, England. Three teams who would have expected to find themselves in contention for the inaugural Nations League crown when the tournament started in September. Switzerland? Not so much.

Along with Poland and Iceland, the Swiss would have been among the less fancied of the 12 teams in League A to reach the finals. This despite the fact they earned a berth in the top tier via their FIFA and UEFA rankings.

Vladimir Petkovic’s side are currently eighth in FIFA’s standings – a position they have held since 2017. They haven’t fallen outside the top 20 since 2011 and while not the most vibrant, eye-catching of teams, they are stoic and solid.

They toppled the Scandanavians and star-studded Belgium to win Group 2, scoring 14 goals (only Kosovo, who played two more games, scored higher among the 55 teams).

Benfica striker Seferovic scored a third of the Swiss goals across the tournament (5/15) – including a heroic hat-trick in a brilliant 5-2 November 18 victory over Belgium crucial to securing top spot. He also notched in a 2-1 win over Iceland and added an assist for a stellar all-round contribution.

ALEKSANDAR MITROVIC (SERBIA)

Aleksandar Mitrovic

The combative striker was arguably the only Fulham player to emerge with his reputation intact following a woefully below-par return to the Premier League last term.

Mitrovic, 24, seemed to be a one-man army at times as the Cottagers failed to settle in their new home – registering a battling 11 goals in 37 games as the west London outfit went straight back down following a scattergun approach to the transfer market last summer.

The Smederevo-born striker carried over his form into the national side during a prolific Nations League campaign in which he finished overall top scorer with six goals.

He was consistently brilliant as Mladen Krstajic’s men won a tough Group Din the third tier to earn promotion to League B, scoring braces in an opening 2-2 draw with Romania that was always likely to prove pivotal, as well as in the ensuing 2-0 triumph over Montenegro.

He notched again in the home leg against Montenegro and the 4-1 final day thrashing of Lithuania that confirmed promotion.

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Ryan Giggs comes to Gareth Bale’s defence after costly miss in Wales’ 1-0 defeat to Hungary

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Ryan Giggs absolved Gareth Bale of any blame after Wales’ Euro 2020 qualification hopes were dented by a 1-0 defeat in Hungary.

Bale, who has not scored for three months, missed a golden opportunity to put Wales ahead on the hour, tamely chipping at goalkeeper Peter Gulacsi from 12 yards when completely unmarked.

It was to prove a costly miss as midfielder Mate Patkai grabbed the winner 10 minutes from time, leaving Wales trailing Group E leaders Hungary by six points.

Wales needed a big performance from Bale to revive their Euro 2020 hopes, but the Real Madrid forward looked lethargic throughout and struggled to make an impression on the game.

“You have seen it in both games, a lot of the players are short of match fitness,” Giggs said after back-to-back defeats in Croatia and Hungary.

“Asking Gareth to play two games in a short space of time, the way he plays, after not playing for six weeks. We are asking players to perform miracles really.

“Ethan (Ampadu) has not really played. I did well to get 50 minutes out of him. Brooksy (David Brooks) was the same.

“But in our defence, we are playing one game less and we had two tough away games, five weeks after the season finished.”

With the halfway mark of the campaign fast approaching, Wales are playing catch-up in the race for a top-two.

As well as being six points shy of Hungary, albeit with a game in hand, fourth-placed Wales are three behind Slovakia and Croatia.

Wales’ next fixture is a September home game with bottom-placed Azerbaijan.

“We have to probably win nearly every game now,” Giggs said.

“I know it’s early doors and there are still a lot of points, but we have made it really difficult for ourselves.

“We are probably relying on teams around us to drop points, which they will do because it is competitive.

“Obviously we have to start winning and if not win all the games, then the majority of them.”

Giggs feels Wales paid the price for some sloppy defending in the last two games.

“We have given soft goals we gave away in both games, and you can’t do that as this level,” he said.

“The performance was not good enough in the first half. The tempo was too slow and Hungary were putting us under pressure with too many set-pieces.

“The second half was much better, moving the ball quicker.

“We looked the more dangerous team. But if you don’t take your chances, this is what happens.”

Provided by Press Association Sport

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2019 Copa America: Barcelona target Takefusa Kubo features in players to watch

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The 46th edition of the Copa America promises another exhibition for some of football’s brightest talents.

Lionel Messi’s dogged pursuit of a first piece of silverware with Argentina and Philippe Coutinho’s revitalisation with hosts Brazil provide two of the major storylines. But beyond the obvious names, talent abounds.

Here is a list of players who could either rise to prominence, or earn major moves to Europe, on the back of their exploits from June 14-July 7:

RICHARLISON

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Nation: Brazil

Club: Everton

Position: Forward

Age: 22

Caps (goals): 10 (5)

A Neymar-sized hole exists in the Brazil attack – and in-form Richarlison looks capable of filling it.

The Everton forward has adapted perfectly to the demands of international football since his senior debut in September 2018. An average of a goal every 104.6 minutes – a ratio boosted by strikes in both warm-ups – is eminently impressive, particularly when half of his 10 caps have come as a substitute.

Ajax’s David Neres is likely to be the immediate beneficiary of Neymar’s continued injury frustrations. Yet, Richarlison is now guaranteed to start and has grown significantly in prominence.

Brazil’s generous opening to Group A against Bolivia provides opportunity to gain early momentum. Watch them and Richarlison fly.

WUILKER FARINEZ

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Nation: Venezuela

Club: Millonarios

Position: Goalkeeper

Age: 21

Caps (goals): 14 (0)

A quiet buzz has been developing about this Venezuelan generation and their athletic custodian.

Farinez was the defiant figure in goal when they outstripped expectation and made it to the 2017 U-20 World Cup final, even netting a penalty during the group-stage thrashing of Vanuatu. Now, comes a prominent opportunity to wow at senior level after he was an unused member of the 2015 Copa squad as a 16-year-old.

The Millonarios shot stopper is a throwback. Phenomenal reflexes and a remarkable spring are the main weapons in his armoury, because of his relative lack of height at six-feet tall.

Links to Barcelona, as the new back-up to Germany’s Marc-Andre ter Stegen, will only strengthen if he ensures Venezuela’s rise continues from Group A.

RODRIGO DE PAUL

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Nation: Argentina

Club: Udinese

Position: Winger

Age: 25

Caps (goals): 4 (0)

Rookie coach Lionel Scaloni is not alone when, seemingly, being unaware of Argentina’s best XI.

The return of Messi provides comfort, but World Cup 2018 evidence even he cannot do it all alone. This is where De Paul, potentially, enters.

The 25-year-old enjoyed his best season in Europe in 2018/19, notching nine goals and eight assists for an awful Udinese. His ability to dribble at high speed and deliver quality should see him emerge ahead of Matias Suarez and Marcos Acuna.

Napoli are already confirmed admirers. If his drive can prevent embarrassment at the hands of Colombia and Paraguay in Group B, they may gain unwanted company.

TAKEFUSA KUBO

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Nation: Japan

Club: FC Tokyo

Position: Forward

Age: 18

Caps (goals): 1 (0)

The time has arrived for Japan’s latest prodigy to deliver.

Kubo’s career is in its infancy, only debuting for Japan last weekend as a substitute against El Salvador. But a mesmerising talent that has led to the predictable ‘Japanese Messi’ nickname has withstood remarkable complication.

From joining Barcelona’s fabled La Masia academy as a 10-year-old, to being at the centre of a scandal surrounding violations of FIFA policy on signing under-18s that led to a transfer ban four years later.

An enforced move home to FC Tokyo could not stunt the squat forward’s development, becoming part of the first team aged just 15. He now comes into the Copa on the back of four goals in his last four J1 League appearances, plus enduring links to Barca and Paris Saint-Germain back in Europe.

Japan’s long search for a new Hidetoshi Nakata should be at an end.

DUVAN ZAPATA

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Nation: Colombia

Club: Atalanta

Position: Centre forward

Age: 28

Caps (goals): 9 (1)

Radamel Falcao’s supremacy at Colombia faces a grave threat.

There isn’t anything more Zapata could be doing to unseat one of his nation’s grandees. The hulking striker netted a career-best 23 times in 37 Serie A fixtures last term, propelling Atalanta into third place and entry into the Champions League for the first time in their history.

Some turnaround after he was not considered strong enough to progress from Colombia’s provisional squad for World Cup 2018.

A first goal in his ninth cap came as a substitute in Sunday’s 3-0 friendly thrashing of Peru. Pertinently, this came as a half-time substitute after Falcao succumbed to minor injury.

The temptation for boss Carlos Queiroz to hand Zapata a spot in the XI for the weekend’s Group B-opener is high.

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