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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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.
Know more about Sport360 Application