Star factor gives UEFA dream final for debut Nations League

REUTERS/Susana Vera

When UEFA unveiled the detailed plans for the Nations League, more than four years ago, many were sceptical about whether the new competition would be anything more than a glorified series of friendly matches.

Even inside UEFA’s own headquarters in Nyon, Switzerland, there were some who wondered privately whether the competition, while worthy, would truly capture the imagination of the football public.

But on Sunday, the first edition will conclude with a final that is as near to perfect for UEFA as could be imagined.

The reigning European champions and ‘final four’ tournament hosts Portugal take on the Netherlands — the form team of the continent.

Add into the marketing mix the individual contest between one of the finest attackers in the game, Cristiano Ronaldo, and the greatest defender in modern football, Virgil van Dijk, and UEFA have ended up with a final that ticks almost every box.

Of course, the Nations League is a secondary competition, not enjoying the status of the quadrennial European Championship, but the format guarantees that teams must deliver impressive results to get to the final.

The use of the rankings system to create groups means that there is no easy route to the final for any team.

The Dutch had to get through a group with France and Germany before beating England in their semi-final in Guimaraes on Thursday.

Portugal’s path was not quite so testing but they were unbeaten in a group with Italy and Poland before defeating Switzerland in Porto on Wednesday.

The two semi-finals were closely contested and packed with talking points — Ronaldo scored a hat-trick against a solid Swiss side with Xherdan Shaqiri in top form while one of the continent’s brightest young talents, Dutch midfielder Frenkie de Jong sparkled in his side’s extra-time win over England.

Debate will continue to rage about the merits of the VAR video review system but it certainly creates drama.

VAR had a major role in both games — a penalty awarded to Portugal was over-turned when the review found an offence at the other end and a potential 2-0 Portuguese lead was turned into a 1-1 equaliser for the Swiss.

The Portuguese recovered from that thanks to Ronaldo’s sublime finishing but England never came back from the over-ruling of their magnificent goal, scored by Jesse Lingard, in the 83rd minute that would have won the game 2-1 for Gareth Southgate’s side.

The inevitable focus now is on the clash between Ronaldo and Van Dijk on Sunday and the remarkable statistic that shows that not once this season has an opponent dribbled past the Dutch defender.

The 34-year-old Ronaldo may not have the burst of acceleration that he once had but he will surely relish the opportunity to try to be the one player who outdid the Liverpool centre-half this season.

His team mate Jose Fonte, who played alongside Van Dijk at Southampton, believes the Juventus forward can rise to the challenge.

“It is not easy to get past Van Dijk but no-one is unbeatable. It is an incredible stat, isn’t it? If there is someone, Cristiano is one of them,” he said.

Even if his step-overs, jinks and trickery do not manage to leave Van Dijk flat-footed, Ronaldo will see scoring against a defence marshalled by a player being tipped by some for the Ballon d’Or as one of the individual challenges he relishes.

“I still feel good despite being 34 years of age,” Ronaldo said this week.

“The most important thing is your head, to feel motivated and happy, and to follow my path as a player, because I think I still have a lot to give and I feel very good.”

Van Dijk, unsurprisingly, was keen to play down talk of the duel with the five-times Ballon d’Or winner.

“We play Portugal, we don’t play Cristiano Ronaldo. They have a very good team, it is going to be very tough, so we will prepare well and we’ll see,” he said.