Portugal vs Switzerland – UEFA Nations League 2019 Semi-Final Preview

With my focus recently being on improving teams throughout Europe and bringing attention to players who have had stand out seasons, it can be easy to forget that the UEFA Nations League games were taking place this week. I have been a massive advocate for the idea of the Nations League. they have brought purpose to those pesky international breaks that would stop the flow of the club football, at a time where looking away from your television was impossible. UEFA seemed to introduce this new competition to give hope to smaller nations in qualifying for Euro 2020 and future tournaments. I’ve spoken to many fans regarding the Nations League, and a majority are very supportive of it. While slightly confusing, it has added a reason to care about these breaks. The standards of the games have increased because these teams are playing for something, instead of just preparation. We’ll be previewing the two big semi-final games and the final, to see which team will come out with the trophy, starting with Euro 2016 winners Portugal and a solid Switzerland side.

Starting with Portugal, who will go into this tie as the favourites. Their World Cup outing wasn’t as impressive as many hoped. While they progressed to the Round of 16 unbeaten, they only managed to win a single game. They were beaten by a poor Uruguay side thanks to a brilliant performance by Edinson Cavani but it was a tournament that ended with more questions than answers for Portugal. They’ve had to continuously rely on their older players in defence with the lack of defensive prospects coming through their youth set-up. While that is an issue that Fernando Santos cannot do much about, it is his team selection in attack where my issues begin to surface. He was playing players in the wrong positions throughout the tournament. Bruno Fernandes, one of the best young attacking midfielders around, was forced out onto the left side. After one game, in which he was poor, he went on to not start a game for Portugal in Russia again. Gonzalo Guedes was another to suffer thanks to Santos. He had a fantastic season prior to the World Cup, playing on the left of a 4-4-2. However, he was playing up front with Ronaldo for his national team. I can understand why he was playing there. He was there to do the off the ball work that Ronaldo has never done throughout his career. He had to sacrifice his own game for the sake of the team, and he suffered for it.

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In the end, Portugal’s issues always seem to come back to their biggest strength, Cristiano Ronaldo. We’ve seen the sacrifices Juventus have had to make to accommodate one of the best talents of his generation. Dybala looks to be leaving the club after Ronaldo’s arrival and Juventus have generally looked worse this season. When you have Ronaldo, all of your chance creation is solely for him. You begin crossing the ball more and playing a less attractive, but more effective style of football. Portugal needs to start thinking about the future of this side once their greatest ever player retires.

They have already briefly shown what life could be like without Ronaldo. In their 3-2 victory over Poland earlier in the season, they played a 4-1-4-1, with Andre Silva leading the line. They generally played with a lot of speed, with a lot of quick exchanges between players. They had a lot of pace in players like Rafa Silva and Cancelo while having technically superb players in Bernardo Silva and Ruben Neves to keep possession while under pressure. A team should never rely on individuals, and it’s a stage Portugal need to move past. However, with the inclusion of Sousa from Braga, replacing Andre Silva in the squad, it paints a picture of a side who are looking more at the short term, instead of choosing players who will have a future for the national side.

Portugal’s biggest threat in the game, excluding Ronaldo, has to be Bernardo Silva. While the race for the PFA player of the year was primarily between Raheem Sterling and Virgil Van Dijk, Bernardo Silva was the best player in the Premier League. He went from a good winger into a fantastic central midfielder. He filled that De Bruyne-shaped gap that was left while adding more defensive work and a player who leads the press for his side. While I think he great on the ball, it’s his engine that is most impressive. During their title-defining 2-1 victory over Liverpool, Bernardo Silva was everywhere. He covered 13.7 kilometres, at that point a record for most distance covered by a player last season. He was halting Liverpool constantly, through interceptions and smartly placed fouls. Bernardo is one of my favourite players in the league. A midfielder who possess such intelligence and ability, yet is comfortable in doing all the off the ball work that one of the most demanding systems require. His chance creation for Portugal has been key. He ranks top of the team for key passes with 2.3 in the Nations League. Portugal will constantly get him on the ball. Silva is fantastic at retaining the ball and helps them transition the ball. He has even been showing the same work rate and defensive work he offers for his club. Silva is third in the side for tackles per game with 1.7. While Portugal are most likely include Ronaldo in these games, Bernardo will remain vital for his side in defence and attack.

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Their opponents, however, are no walk in the park. Switzerland is a nation who have surfaced as one of the best teams in Europe throughout the decade. They rank 8th in the FIFA world rankings and looking at the talent in their squad, are likely to improve. Their showing in the World Cup was solid, but nothing exceptional. They finished 2nd in a difficult group containing Brazil, Serbia and Costa Rica. While they weren’t the best to watch, they were solid in defence and were efficient in attack. Their defeat to Sweden in the round of 16, however, showed their weaknesses. They lack many players with pace and relied heavily upon Shaqiri. Since he was playing out on the right wing, he was left isolated throughout their defeat. While he did create 4 chances, he failed to get a single shot on target. Petkovic regularly deployed Behrami and Xhaka together. Both lack energy and drive in midfield. While Xhaka is an elite passer and Behrami puts in a lot of defensive work, they cannot play together without someone who can play that box to box role.

While they did struggle to reach their potential in Russia, their Nations League qualifying campaign was a massive success. They scored 14 goals in 4 games, 9 more than they managed at the World Cup. There are a handful of reasons for why they saw such an improvement. Starting with their midfield, Behrami was replaced by Borussia Monchengladbach midfielder Denis Zakaria. The young midfielder still gave that defensive presence in the midfielder, as his former teammate did, while adding that little bit extra in the final third. He was creating 1.3 chances per game, while also taking 1.8 shots. He was making those runs into the box, to help give his teammates extra options. Xhaka still remains to be the player who keeps things ticking in midfield, completing 90 passes per game, but he has been given a partner who is able to cover the distance in midfield while also aiding in attack.

The Shaqiri problem was also resolved, simply by moving him into attacking midfield. This fixed two major problems. Shaqiri wasn’t left so isolated anymore and neither was Seferovic. He’s now taking more shots, creating more chances and is getting on the ball more than he has ever been before for his country. It also makes Switzerland less predictable. Shaqiri will drift across the pitch to involve himself in the game, and it has made his side more difficult to deal with. Shaqiri has taken his game to another level and will key in this semi-final.

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Their midfield and attack have both improved, but their defence also deserves a mention. Petkovic has changed his personnel, with Lichsteiner and Djourou being replaced by the likes of Elvedi and Mbabu. They still remain solid at the back. Akanji and Elvedi are great passers, while Mbabu and Rodriguez are full backs who are able to cover large areas of the pitch, while also helping their team on the attacking front. While their defenders aren’t on the same level as the likes of France or Netherlands, they could form a very good defensive unit with time on their side.

While Shaqiri and Xhaka have already been mentioned when looking at key players for the side, Haris Seferovic will be important. The forward has struggled to establish himself at the top level, playing for Fiorentina, Real Sociedad, Eintracht Frankfurt and now Benfica, where he has arguably been the most successful. In 29 appearances in Liga NOS, he has scored 23 goals and assisted 5. In a season in which has seen Jonas struggle for minutes, Seferovic stepped up for Benfica. While he did impress at club level, it was during the Nations League group stages where he arguably put in his best performances. He scored 5 goals, including a hat trick against Belgium. He’s good at finding space in the box, which was perfect against a Belgium side which aren’t exactly organised. He links up with Shaqiri well and he’s taking 3.5 shots per game, a solid number for a striker. He excels when the team are using him as the focal point. Petkovic has gotten the best out of the striker and will need him if Switzerland hopes to progress to the final.

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If Portugal wish to reach the final, they will need to take advantage of two things. The first being Granit Xhaka. He is a great passer of the ball but lacks the mobility to be an effective central midfielder. He is poor defensively, with teams throughout the Premier League noticing how bad he is at tracking runners. I’d personally deploy Bernardo Silva in midfield to deal with Xhaka. He can keep pressure on him, while his intelligent movement will help him find space behind the Arsenal midfielder.

If Switzerland want to progress to the final, they will need to target the centre backs. Shaqiri and Seferovic need to be smart and look to drag the defenders in areas they will feel most uncomfortable. One of Pepe or Fonte will play, who are both over 33. Diego Costa had a fantastic game against Portugal last summer, with Pepe unable to deal with him. Seferovic needs to look at what Costa was doing, and try and replicate the damage the Spaniard was causing.

It’ll be a close game, but I think Switzerland will progress. While Portugal have a lot of talented players, their reliance on Ronaldo and their weakness at the back can leave them to be both predictable and vulnerable. The Swiss have balance throughout the side, and Petkovic has taken the steps in the right direction for transitioning this side to its next generation. This could be the tournament where the rest of Europe sees this.

 

 

My Top 50 Favourite Players (50-41)

Ah the big one. Football is full of all sorts of different players. Different fans like different players. Some prefer strikers who score the simple goals, and some others like those silky dribblers in midfield. I’m no different. I like players for all sorts of reason. Either it’s reasons due to their ability on the field, off the field, or some other reason. I usually attempt to stay very objective. While some choices will be here for that very reason, some will not. So let’s get straight into it.

50. Alexandre Lacazette

To start things off, let’s go with a player who is currently playing at the top of his game. The Arsenal forward is an absolutely tremendous player. Not only is he an amazing goal scorer, he also offers so much off the ball. His movement and pressing of the defenders is incredibly useful. I was so happy when Arsenal signed him. He was just brilliant at Lyon, and after 3 seasons of goalscoring, he finally earned that move. While Lyon are now a great club for young players and attackers in general, back then they were very reliant on Lacazette to lead the line. His last season at Lyon was arguably his most prolific. He scored 28 in 28 starts, and was the only Lyon player to score over 10 goals in Ligue 1. He’s also a really good creator. In that season he had 3 assists, but created 1.7 chances a game. He was exactly what Arsenal needed and is now doing the same there. He is just an amazing goal scorer and watching him on the pitch is just so enjoyable. However my love for Lacazette comes from Fifa out of all things. For 3 games (15-17), he was that elite striker you’d always sign for a top club because of his potential and amazing stats. He was fast, strong and so good in front of goal. He was worth all the money you’d spend, and sometimes you could resell him for over £100m. He was one of the best players on the game and gave me so many fond memories. Thank you Laca.

49. Edin Dzeko

I’ve spoken about my love for the guy before on Heroes and Zeroes, but let’s go through it again with maybe more detail. I never truly thought about him when he was playing for Man City. Of course I disliked him for the soul reason of playing for my rivals, but I only knew he was good in the air and was a perfect alternative to Sergio Aguero, however my attention wasn’t drawn until his move to Roma. Roma at the time weren’t exactly full of goal machine’s. I always have an issue with any side that sign Seydou Doumbia. It almost tells me you’re desperate for goals and have no other option. I thought Dzeko was a good choice. There was proof of his time at Wolfsburg that he can carry a team’s goals, and learnt more link play skills while in England. He was ready to lead the line for a side on his own. To say he’s been a success at Roma is a huge understatement. While his first season wasn’t exactly prolific, only scoring 8 in 31. He offers so much in link up and trouble for defenders that he’s always justified his occasional small goal numbers. But after that he has truly been incredible. He scored 29 in the 16/17 season, and was a huge player for Roma’s huge 91 point season. His goals have decreased in the league since then, but he was amazing in the Champions League. He scored 8 in 12 last season, and is now on 4 in 5 this season. Why I love Dzeko is he is the blueprint for a dying art, the target man. The Bosnian can do everything you want from a huge number 9. He is so good in the air and always has been. It’s an ability that no matter how old you get, you never lose that effectiveness. He’s now 32 and is still incredible at winning the ball in the air. However is best feature is circumstance. It’s a weird feature, but let me explain. He is playing in a side full of wide talent. Under, Kluivert and El Shaararwy are all good players, but still need to start showing consistency. Having a player like Dzeko, who is so effective in giving space to teammates and giving them good chances to score. He is benefitting more than just himself, and that selflessness is why I love him as a player.

48. Saul Ñíguez

Saul is an amazing midfielder. My love began after his incredible solo goal against Bayern Munich back in 2016. Thanks to that solo goal, that I assume Alaba, Vidal and Alonso have still not recovered from, it turned into a name I would not forget. After looking more into him, I then realised he also scored that incredible over head kick against Real Madrid in 2015. It almost sums up why I love him. He is a hard working player who puts in good tackle and interception numbers, yet is capable of these crazy moments of magic. He’s your classic don’t judge a book by it’s cover player. I think the assumption made about him comes from playing for Diego Simeone. Before recent huge signings like Lemar and Martins, his team were a hardworking unit that were great at winning the ball high up and using their physicality to their advantage. From the way he plays, he is quite similar to a Gabi, Koke or Turan, but he’s more than that. He can be relied on in tough moments and is capable of those quality moments. I love him for these moments and has made me gasp multiple times with some of his goals.

47. Joe Allen

As mentioned before, this is very much a personal list. These are players who may contain a great memory and it’s why I have an affection towards them. Joe Allen might be the epitome of that. A player who never really achieved much at club level, thanks to his disappointing time at Anfield. However that is not important. I am Welsh, and thanks to his incredible performances at the 2016 Euros, I will never forget him. The current Stoke midfielder was an important player in that side. Ramsey is a disaster positionally and Joe Ledley only recovered from an injury while the tournament was still going. Allen had a lot of work to do, and he was amazing. He controlled the midfield and he also protected the defense well. It was strange to see such an average manager in Chris Coleman figure out how to finally get Allen playing well consistently. He was so good that he was actually in the team of the tournament. He has a nickname in this country, the Welsh Pirlo, because of his similar haircut. However in that summer, he turned into Pirlo and was a key reason why my country had their most successful tournament since Pele was playing. Thanks Joe!

46. Pepe

Quite the controversial player, but effective in his own way, Pepe is an incredibly memorable player. He used to have the title as the dirtiest player in Europe, with memorable horror challenges on Messi and against Getafe’s captain at the start to life at Madrid. However after that indefensible incident, he changed as a player. He said that he was considering his future in football after lashing out in 2009, and after a few years of continuing the bad reputation, he truly turned it around. After that sending off in a 2011/12 El Classico, Pepe has not received a single red card at club level (he did receive one at the 2014 World Cup however). Why I love him does come from this. He kicked out the ugly side of his game, and turned into an incredible defender. His performance at the 2016 Euros could possibly be the best seen from a defender at a major tournament. He made 3.2 interceptions, won 3.8 aerial duels and commited under a foul a game. Pepe’s transformation is why I have such a fondness to him. He went from a joke into one of the best around. A player who knew the dark side of the game and knew how to exploit it. A real winner.

45. Moussa Dembele

While he has dropped off a cliff in the last couple of seasons, no one can argue that when Dembele was in his peak, he was one of the most useful and wanted midfielders to have in Europe. Dembele has never been a spectacular midfielder, like a Kroos or Thiago, but he filled a hole in a side that everyone wanted. He was so good at winning the ball back and a brilliant dribbler. Between 2012 and 2016, he was arguably the best dribbling central midfielder in Europe. He was so powerful and quick that it was nearly impossible to dispossess him. He even did plenty of defensive work too. When Spurs were at their best, it was because they had an incredible midfielder who did the most wanted role in anyone’s midfield. It’s similar to why I have such a liking towards him. It could be out of sheer jealousy, since my side does not have a player similar to peak Moussa Dembele. He’s everything I want a midfielder to be. A well rounded player who should have earned so much more praise than he got.

44. Diego Forlan

While my memories of him at Manchester United aren’t exactly vast, his performances in La Liga and at the 2010 World Cup is what made me love the forward. He put in performances that made him one of the best strikers in the world at Atletico Madrid and Villarreal. He could take set pieces, penalties and was a machine in front of goal. He was also a pretty good creative forward. He was the blueprint for what a forward in the modern game should be. He also scored against Liverpool at Anfield. If any player does that, they are worshipped at United. In fact his name was chanted by United fans when they were playing Sunderland in 2017, making José Mourinho ask the valid question “why are they singing his name?” I truly hate Liverpool, and any player who causes them misery makes me extremely happy. While that is always great, it’s South Africa in 2010 that is my fondest memory of him. It’s the first world cup I religiously watched and he was by far the most memorable part of the whole tournament. Uruguay were not tipped to reach the semi finals, yet still got there and it was all thanks to Forlan. He won the Golden Boot and did that by scoring some absolutely stunning goals. It could be down to the terrible ball used in the tournament, but he still deserves plenty of credit. That volley against Germany, which he hit against the ground to take Neuer the wrong way, was pure genius. It’s a shame I wasn’t old enough to remember him in his earlier days, but I still loved what I saw.

43. Edwin Van Der Sar

I think Van Der Sar might be the best goalkeeper United have had in the Premier League era. While Schmeichal is always remember fondly by United fans for his incredible and aggressive personality in goal, Van Der Sar was just incredible. Replacing Schmeichal took an extremely long time to do for a club of United’s size. His lack of an adequate replacement is why United’s early 2000s weren’t great. Fergie was under a lot of pressure, due to Arsenal looking the real deal and Chelsea with their new oil money. While Rooney and Ronaldo were signings that would eventually turn United into the best team around, Van Der Sar was an immediate fix that just took too long to happen. He was signed from Fulham for only 2 million. In reality he probably should have been signed soon as his time in Turin was coming to an end. Soon as he arrived in Manchester, Ferguson’s winning machine was back to its best. My favourite memory of the Dutchman is easily the 2008 Champions League final in Moscow. It’s the first and only time I saw my team win the biggest trophy in club football, and it was thanks to Van Der Sar making that save. The entire side running and screaming in happiness to see their veteran keeper making the most important penalty save in his career. He was truly the best.

42. Kevin Prince Boateng

While his younger brother might be the superior player, Kevin Prince Boateng is a personal favourite of mine. Whether it’s choosing to play for Ghana over Germany, and constantly moving clubs, there’s just something unique about him. Boateng has played for a lot of clubs, 10 in fact, ranging from unsuccessful spells in England for Tottenham and Portsmouth, to playing for AC Milan and Genoa, to playing for Schalke and Frankfurt. He’s been around to say the least. What can truly be loved about the Ghanian is his versatility. From starting as a number 10 to moving further back, to playing as a striker for Las Palmas. He has proven to be a shot machine throughout his career, which is why with age, he was moved further up the pitch. The reason why I like him as a player is out of pure fascination. He never stayed longer than 2 seasons at a club and constantly moved around. It’s as if he was trying to see as much of the world as he could, and experience all the different clubs out there. Of course there is probably a more genuine reason why he has never stayed at a club for long, but that’s what I’d love to believe.

41. Ronaldinho

Oh where to begin with him. The king of the samba style of football has to be here. For anyone who grew up in the 2000s and obsessively played the Fifa Street games, there is nothing but love for tricky Brazilian. While I could go incredibly in-depth to how he probably inspired a sub category of FIFA games just because of his the pure entertaining way he played football, I’ll just stick to his game. The Balon d’Or, Champions League, La Liga, Serie A, World Cup, Copa America and Confederations cup winner is among one of the best players in history on pure ability. No other player in the start of the Millennium could move, dribble and beat opponents in the same way he could. He famously earned a standing ovation at the Bernabeu for putting in one of the best individual performances in history, scoring 2 incredible goals that must have embarrassed every defender on the pitch that day. On his day he was unplayable. He played the game in his own vision, with a huge smile on his face and just loved to show off. He played football like he lives life, to enjoy himself.