UEFA Nations League preview: League A group stage

The UEFA Nations League A explained, by Nathan Ridley.

Complex as it may be (even upon reading and listening to as many UEFA explanations as possible), the Nations League will offer some enticing matches over the next few months. With group clashes being spread over the next trio of international breaks, the three-team groups are set to be short and sweet, with equally-matched affairs.

League A has the most star-studded nations out of the 55 involved and the four winners of each group are the teams that will advance to the semi-finals, third-place play off and final accordingly.

Despite the tedious nature of international breaks and most football fans still recovering from World Cup drama, let us take you through League A, group by group, in the competition where every game counts.

Group A1: Containing a whopping 50% teams who have made the last three World Cup finals, this group is arguably the strongest - currently and historically.

Germany

The former world champions, Die Mannschaft, stuck with coach Joachim Löw this year in spite of their most embarrassing tournament result of all-time. Out to salvage their dignity, the ageing serial-winners need to prove they can still perform when it matters for the next four games. Under pressure from frustrated fans and the national media, it is imperative that they be relatively successful in both this difficult group and the tournament as a whole. 

Star man: Thomas Müller

One to watch: Kai Havertz

France

As current world champions, France will aim to potentially create their own era of dominance by winning this tournament. Their squad boasts bags of talent, both young and old, but Didier Deschamps will have his work cut out to keep his stars hungry for another title. It is unlikely the ride will be quite as smooth as the one in Russia but their quality in abundance cannot be underestimated - even by other great sides.

Star man: Antoine Griezmann

One to watch: Kylian Mbappé

Netherlands

Like a wounded beast, the Netherlands will be desperate to prove themselves under new boss Ronald Koeman. Missing out on the past two major tournaments, the Flying Dutchmen have lacked numerous big games in recent years, so these four ties will be tough to mentally prepare for. However, a large amount of young talent with a dash of experienced quality should help them get back on their feet if they can put up a decent fight.

Star man: Virgil van Dijk

One to watch: Frenkie de Jong

An opening encounter between Germany and France at the Allianz Arena this Thursday could kick-start a stellar battle to claim victory in this group.

Group A2: Small in terms of population but big when it comes to quality, this group could provide some entertainment.

Belgium

As the golden generation of Belgian talent, this team arguably need a trophy to make that label worth shouting about. Although they finished third at the World Cup, plenty is left to be desired in this top class side due to their insane amount talent for a lesser-populated nation, compared to their adversaries at the top of the rankings. Led by Roberto Martínez, they should comfortably win this group but that will not be enough unless they advance to the final of this competition. 

Star man: Eden Hazard

One to watch: Leander Dendoncker

Switzerland

As one of those teams that people have to wonder how they climbed the rankings so well, the consistency in the Swiss side of making six of the last seven tournaments is something to be marvelled at. Managed by Vladimir Petkovi?, their squad is made-up mostly of players either in their prime or just coming into it. Likely to be optimistic that they could cause an upset, no one would be happy to face the Swiss when in a confident mood.

Star man: Xherdan Shaqiri

One to watch: Manuel Akanji

Iceland

Strákarnir okkar have stunned the world over the past three years as an understated minnow nation but their now inconic team have established themselves as a solid outfit. New manager Erik Hamrén took over as boss this autumn but their squad, full of workmen-like players, has remained pretty intact. Capable of shocking any team and patriotism flowing through their ice-cold veins, expect the unexpected from Iceland yet again.

Star man: Gylfi Sigurdsson

One to watch: Jón Daoi Bödvarsson

There could be plenty of surprises in these games if every team gives their all and a few big-named players lose their form. 

Group A3: As a set of teams who rely on big names to deliver the goods, this group will undoubtedly be one full of tight games, with sparks of brilliance.

Portugal

European champions Portugal had a frustrating summer but know that under Fernando Santos that they can grind-out results against anyone. It would be unwise to underestimate Cristiano Ronaldo but he has been omitted from the first squad to face Italy this week. A much younger side will be given the chance to impress but some old heads will no doubt be relied on.

Star man: Cristiano Ronaldo

One to watch: Rúben Neves

Italy

Now managed by Roberto Mancini, the Azzurri face a fresh challenge without legend Gianluigi Buffon between the posts. Aiming to get over their shocking loss to Sweden last year, which stopped them going to Russia, the Italians need a victory in this group. With a huge selection of top class strikers including Andrea Belotti, Ciro Immobile and Lorenzo Insigne to pick from, this team might be smashing in a fair amount of goals if they can find a suitable system to incorporate that attacking talent.

Star man: Giorgio Chiellini

One to watch: Gianluigi Donnarumma

Poland

Finishing rock bottom of a winnable group in the summer, new Poland manager Jerzy Brzeczek has left out a few big-names in his first squad for the competition. World class goalscorer Robert Lewandowski remains skipper and star man but will need to rediscover his club form instead of that World Cup draught to somehow carry his team in this tricky set of games. The Eagles often put in fantastic displays against strong sides so they could turn things around here.

Star man: Robert Lewandowski

One to watch: Piotr Zielinski

Group A4: Definitely the most even group, it is extremely tough to choose a winner from these teams.

Spain

With former player Luis Enrique now at the Spanish helm, the chaos that surrounded the side during the summer is behind them. Big-name stars such as Andrés Iniesta, Gerard Piqué and David Silva have now retired, allowing for a wave of talent to flood through. Out for a new era of success with exciting youth, the Red Fury could be back to dominating big teams soon.

Star man: David De Gea

One to watch: Marco Asensio

England

Gareth Southgate turned 47 this week and he turned the nation around back to supporting England this year, when he guided the Three Lions to their best ever finish since Italia ‘90. Ranked 6th in the world following their endeavour, the squad will be rife with confidence - as will the supporters. Relying on main man and skipper Harry Kane up front for most of the time during the summer, in order to win this group some forward-thinking players need to step up and try to match that ability.

Star man: Harry Kane

One to watch: Luke Shaw

Croatia

Being the true Dark Horse of the World Cup, the industrious Croats have lost key men such as Mario Mandžukic and Danijel Subašic to retirement and have some other key injuries ahead of this campaign. The straight-forward style of Zlatko Dalic suits the side but they will find it difficult to repeat their summer heroics. Always looking stylish in their chequered shirts and having Luka Modric as their leader alongside Ivan Rakitic in the middle, they may well not be over the hill for the big occasions just yet.

Star man: Luka Modric

One to watch: Tin Jedvaj 

Who do you think will come out on top in each of these four groups and ultimately win this competition in its inaugural campaign? Comment below! 

Posted by Nathan Ridley

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