Nations League gets to the business end

Germany will look to revive its fortunes after failing to raise its game since the early exit from World Cup, while France and Belgium are on the brink of qualifying for the finals of the UEFA Nations League.

Kylian Mbappe is capable of carrying France to the finals of the UEFA Nations League.   -  Getty Images

World Cup winner France, Eden Hazard's Belgium and a fast-improving Netherlands under Ronald Koeman could all book places in the finals of the Nations League in matches between Thursday and Tuesday.

The competition, UEFA's bid to move away from meaningless friendly matches, has divided opinion in its inaugural season.

The strongest sides will qualify for the finals next June, but all 16 group winners will get a place in the Euro 2020 qualification playoffs.

However, if those nations have already qualified for Euro 2020 through normal qualifying, the best-ranked team from a lower group will be drafted in.

Qualifying for Euro 2020 does not begin until next March.

France on brink of qualification

Injured Paul Pogba will miss the match against Netherlands.   -  Getty Images

Kylian Mbappe can carry world champion France into the finals on Friday with a draw against the resurgent Netherlands in Rotterdam.

“We are going there for the win,” coach Didier Deschamps warned. “We are the world champions and we will behave like it.”

France beat the Dutch 2-1 in September after PSG star Mbappe scored the opener and Chelsea target man Olivier Giroud clinched the three points after Ryan Babel had equalised.

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Since then the Netherlands has thrashed Germany 3-0 and drew 1-1 in Belgium. Koeman is rebuilding the Dutch squad that failed to reach this year's World Cup with rookie striker Arnaut Groeneveld, a 21-year-old Nigerian-born winger, and Justin Kluivert, son of Patrick, two exciting new faces.

Two of the world's best defenders also go head-to-head as Real Madrid's Ballon d'Or contender Rafael Varane will line up for France and Liverpool's blockbuster signing, Dutch captain Virgil van Dijk, will marshall his backline.

Deschamps will be missing stars Paul Pogba and Benjamin Mendy but has recalled Moussa Sissoko, the versatile Tottenham man who was one of its stars in the run to the Euro 2016 final.

Not the Germany of old

Germany has struggled to put a disastrous World Cup behind it and face the prospect of relegation from Group A1 having taken a solitary point so far.

Die Mannschaft has to beat the Netherlands in Gelsenkirchen on Monday to avoid dropping down a division.

Few observers expect Germany to fail to book its ticket to Euro 2020 through the normal qualifying process, but its form has done nothing to boost the flagging morale.

Coach Joachim Loew, who retained his job despite the first-round World Cup exit, has begun to dispense with the 2014 World Cup-winning players including Jerome Boateng and bring in fresh blood like Manchester City's Leroy Sane.

The incentive for the Dutch is clear: two wins will see them into next year's finals.

Germany has suffered five defeats in 2018.   -  AP

 

Belgium keeping form

Hazard's Belgium, the side that was only stopped at the World Cup by France, will reach the finals with a Group A2 win against Switzerland in Lucerne on Sunday. In fact, a draw would be enough if the Belgians avoid defeat against Iceland on Thursday.

Croatia seek revenge on Spain

 

World Cup finalist Croatia is hunting a first Nations League win when it hosts Spain, with revenge in mind after losing 6-0 to La Roja in September.

“We are in much better shape than then. It was a debacle and we need to look for revenge... with three points,” their coach Zlatko Dalic said.

The goalless Group A4 draw against England was played behind closed doors, so the game in Zagreb will be the first time Luka Modric has run out in front of a home crowd since inspiring Croatia to the World Cup final, a feat that makes him favourite to win the Ballon d'Or next month.

Croatia boss Zlatko Dalic said that the Vatreni are keen on avoiding another loss to Spain after a 6-0 thrashing by La Roja in the Nations League.   -  Getty Images

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After a superb year that also landed him the FIFA player of the year award, the Real Madrid midfielder is nearing full fitness, Dalic said.

“He is the leader and he will be at a high level,” the coach said.

Love it or loathe it

Liverpool's Jurgen Klopp calls the Nations League a “senseless” competition comparable to making a prize heavyweight box every night.

But Germany's Loew likes it, saying: “Competition is preferable to playing against small nations.”

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