Why the Nations League finals are set to be spectacular: Italy, Belgium, France, Spain hunt glory

Like a frustrating bus service, you go two years without a major international tournament… then two pop up in the space of four months.

It’s the return of the Nations League this week, with the finals of the latest edition to be played not long after the dust finally settled at Wembley to crown Italy European champions following their penalty shootout victory over England back in July.

Revenge isn’t an option for Gareth Southgate’s men this time around though as they failed to match their 2019 performance of reaching the final four of UEFA’s newest and tertiary competition, which was introduced after the 2018 World Cup to eliminate the banality of international friendlies. 

Portugal are the reigning Nations League champions after winning the inaugural tournament back in 2019, but they have failed to reach the four-team finals this time

This year the finals will be hosted by Italy, who will be hoping to see off the likes of Spain, Belgium and France to cap a remarkable year for Roberto Mancini's side

This year the finals will be hosted by Italy, who will be hoping to see off the likes of Spain, Belgium and France to cap a remarkable year for Roberto Mancini’s side

However, their Wembley conquerers are in the mix again, with the Azzurri hosting the four-match spectacle, taking on Spain in one semi-final, while world champions France face No 1-ranked side Belgium in the other in what are sure to be highly entertaining affairs.

Here Sportsmail looks at the two semi-finals as a new team looks to add their names alongside inaugural winners Portugal this week.

Italy vs Spain

Two tournaments in one year could not come at a better time for Italy who, after suffering one of the all-time lows of not reaching the 2018 World Cup, bounced back to win Euro 2020 this summer… and go 37 matches in a row undefeated in the process.

Roberto Mancini’s side may have had to see off England on spot-kicks to become European champions for the first time since 1968, but few will deny the Azzurri were one of, if not the best team at the tournament.

With an excellent brand of attacking football they looked like high-end Ferraris in a field of beaten up Fiats as they claimed deserved success back in July.

Italy recently tasted glory back in July when they defeated England to win Euro 2020

Italy recently tasted glory back in July when they defeated England to win Euro 2020

Mancini's team are on an incredible run of 37 matches without tasting defeat

Mancini’s team are on an incredible run of 37 matches without tasting defeat

But Mancini’s side suffered a few scares along the way, most notably against Spain in the semi-final where they also needed a shootout victory to set up a final with England. 

Unsurprisingly Mancini isn’t expecting an easy game just a few months on. 

‘Spain were the team we struggled against most during Euro 2020,’ the former Manchester City boss told uefa.com. ‘They are a good team with good players. It will be a good match.

‘It would be amazing to win (the Nations League) after the European Championship – and it would be amazing to qualify for the World Cup early – but it won’t be that easy. Every game is full of difficulties.’ 

Italy just edged out Holland in qualifying for the finals in a group also featuring Poland and Bosnia & Herzegovina, but for the tournament they will still be without flying wing back Leonardo Spinazzola – a crucial part of their success this summer – due to the long-term injury the Roma star picked during Euro 2020.

Italy will be able to call upon legendary centre-back pairing and Juventus stars Leonardo Bonucci (left) and Giorgio Chiellini once again for the Nations League finals

Italy will be able to call upon legendary centre-back pairing and Juventus stars Leonardo Bonucci (left) and Giorgio Chiellini once again for the Nations League finals

Spain will be looking for revenge after being dumped out of Euro 2020 by Italy in the final four

Spain will be looking for revenge after being dumped out of Euro 2020 by Italy in the final four

Lazio striker Ciro Immobile has also had to pull out after suffering a thigh injury last week, but veteran centre-back pairing Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini are in the squad.

Following a slow start to Euro 2020, Spain grew into the tournament before the Italy loss. Since then they have suffered a shock defeat by Sweden in World Cup qualification but boss Luis Enrique insists his side can upset the home fans at the San Siro on Wednesday.

‘It was already an attractive proposition before the Euros took place – to play Italy in Italy in the final four’, Enrique said.

‘This is a competition that we would love to win. It will be a very interesting match, to see what kind of performance we are capable of producing in front of an Italian-majority crowd and against the reigning European champions.

‘You don’t need any more motivation than that. I can’t wait for the game.’

Spain have named a young squad, which includes a call-up for Barcelona teenager Gavi

Spain have named a young squad, which includes a call-up for Barcelona teenager Gavi

Luis Enrique gives instructions to his side during training for the Italy clash on Monday

Luis Enrique gives instructions to his side during training for the Italy clash on Monday

Enrique is without Atletico Madrid’s Marcos Llorente and Barcelona’s Pedri through injury but there are call-ups to potential future stars, including Barcelona’s 17-year-old starlet Gavi as well as Tottenham’s summer signing Bryan Gil.

Qualification for the finals included a stunning 6-0 victory over Germany in a group also containing Switzerland and Ukraine, as Spain look to restore their reputation as big hitters on the international stage.

They have been in decline since their run of three major trophies consisting of two Euros and a World Cup ended following success at Euro 2012. 

HOW THEY REACHED THE FINALS

Group A1

1. Italy – 12 points

2. Holland – 11

3. Poland – 7

4. Bosnia & Herzegovina – 2

Group A4

1. Spain – 11 points

2. Germany – 9

3. Switzerland – 6

4. Ukraine – 6

Belgium vs France 

Two of the summer’s biggest disappointments have a second bite of the cherry to ensure they can look back at 2021 with some fondness.

Belgium, as the world’s top-ranked side, and France, who are reigning world champions, were expected to go far at Euro 2020 as they prepare to meet in the second semi-final at the Allianz Stadium on Thursday.

Belgium looked weak in being dispatched by Italy in the quarter-finals, but they admittedly fared better than Didier Deschamps’ team, who crashed out of the last-16 to Switzerland on penalty kicks in one of the shocks of the tournament.

The two meet in a repeat of the 2018 World Cup semi-final in Russia where France came out on top, but Deschamps is expecting a tough game and admits he has concerns over Belgium’s attacking talents, which include Chelsea’s Romelu Lukaku, Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne and Real Madrid’s Eden Hazard.

Didier Deschamps will hope to get France smiling again after a poor European Championship

Didier Deschamps will hope to get France smiling again after a poor European Championship

France were beaten in the last-16 of the tournament following a shock defeat by Switzerland

France were beaten in the last-16 of the tournament following a shock defeat by Switzerland

‘There is this rivalry and it’s maybe a bit heightened after the semi-final in Russia,’ said Les Bleus’ boss. 

‘We don’t fear them but they have a solid shape and plenty of creative ability. Their attacking play is very effective and they are very efficient.’

France will be hoping they can rely on the likes of Kylian Mbappe to fire them to the final but the striker, who failed to net at Euro 2020, is on a barren run for his country, scoring just once in the last year – against Wales in a June friendly.

Mbappe’s last goal in the Nations League was in the group stages against Croatia in October 2020, in a section where they also fended off defending champions Portugal and Sweden to reach the finals. 

Kylian Mbappe will hope to find his international form again with just one goal in the last year

Kylian Mbappe will hope to find his international form again with just one goal in the last year

France will take on Belgium in a repeat of the 2018 World Cup semi-final won by Les Bleus

France will take on Belgium in a repeat of the 2018 World Cup semi-final won by Les Bleus

France will be without Chelsea midfielder N’Golo Kante following his positive Covid-19 test and instead handed a call-up to Arsenal outcast Matteo Guendouzi, who is currently on loan at Marseille. 

Lukaku, meanwhile, insists an experienced Belgium team must finally achieve success, with a side labelled as the nation’s ‘golden generation’ fast running out of chances to show silverware for it.

The striker is one of five players who have now reached 100 caps in the current squad along with Hazard, Axel Witsel, Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen, with goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois also on 91 caps and De Bruyne on 84. 

‘I’m 28 now; nearly 12 years have passed with lots of ups and downs, but as a team we have always continued to grow,’ Lukaku said.

Romelu Lukaku is part of an experienced Belgium side desperate to finally achieve success

Romelu Lukaku is part of an experienced Belgium side desperate to finally achieve success

Jan Vertonghen (5), Toby Alderweireld (2) and Axel Witsel (second right) are part of a group of centurion Belgium stars running out of time to life a trophy with the Red Devils

Jan Vertonghen (5), Toby Alderweireld (2) and Axel Witsel (second right) are part of a group of centurion Belgium stars running out of time to life a trophy with the Red Devils

‘In the end, the ultimate goal remains to win and that’s my motivation. Every time I play for the national team, I want to win. And to win a tournament.

‘In recent years, we have always managed to have a good start at tournaments and the expectations were always high.

‘At Euro 2016, we didn’t deliver, it was very hard. During the World Cup in Russia we did quite well, but I think now in the Nations League we must do really well, so that we can peak at the next World Cup.’

Belgium were comfortable winners in their Nations League group, seeing off rivals England and Denmark by five points, with only a Wembley defeat by the Three Lions blemishing their route to the finals. 

HOW THEY REACHED THE FINALS

Group A2

1. Belgium – 15 points

2. Denmark- 10

3. England- 10

4. Iceland- 0

Group A3

1. France – 16 points

2. Portugal – 13

3. Croatia – 3

4. Sweden – 3

When are the Nations League final fixtures?

October 6: Italy vs Spain (San Siro, Milan – 7.45pm BST)

October 7: Belgium vs France (Allianz Stadium, Turin – 7.45pm BST)

October 10: Third-place play-off (Allianz Stadium – 2pm BST)

October 10: Nations League final (San Siro – 7.45pm BST)

Competition format

For semi-finals and the final if scores are level after 90 minutes then extra time will be played. If scores remain level after this period then a penalty shootout will take place.

The third-place play-off will go straight to penalty kicks if scores are level after 90 minutes.

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