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What to look out for in Nations League finale

Despite many criticising the decision to go ahead with the tournament during the coronavirus pandemic, amid travel difficulties, matches behind closed doors, and with injuries piling up, the UEFA Nations League limps to a finish over the next week.

AFP Sport looks at some of the issues to be decided in the coming days:

Covid and injuries take toll

For the third month running European national teams are playing a double-header of Nations League matches, and many are throwing in friendlies too, despite the ongoing complications caused by the health crisis.

England feared their game against Iceland next Wednesday might be moved to a neutral venue because their opponents are due to play Denmark away three days earlier.

Denmark is the subject of a UK travel ban due to concerns over a new strain of Covid-19 linked to mink farms, and the idea of England moving the Iceland game to a neutral venue in Germany or Albania had been raised.

However, the UK government issued a travel exemption to the Icelandic side and the game will go ahead at Wembley.

Elsewhere, players are absent after testing positive for Covid-19, among them Eden Hazard, who is set to miss Belgium’s games with England and Denmark.

Niklas Suele, Kai Havertz and Emre Can are missing for Germany, while Edin Dzeko is out for Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Wissam Ben Yedder for France.

And it’s not just the players: Italy coach Roberto Mancini also had to go into quarantine after contracting the virus.

Then there are the injuries, with players struggling to keep up with the demands of a packed schedule. 

England’s Liverpool defender Joe Gomez this week succumbed to a serious knee injury. Spain’s Ansu Fati and Germany’s Joshua Kimmich also suffered knee injuries just before this international break.

Will holders Portugal reach finals?

The winners of the four groups in League A will advance to the finals, which UEFA has pencilled in for October next year.

Portugal are the holders after winning the inaugural edition on home soil in 2019, and the reigning European champions face World Cup holders France in Lisbon on Saturday in a crunch game — whoever wins will be through to the finals, while a draw keeps things alive until the final Group 3 matches on Tuesday.

Poland, Italy and the Netherlands are all fighting it out in Group 1, while Belgium are in pole position in Group 2 and can knock out England with a win in Leuven on Sunday. Denmark are still in contention in that group too.

In Group 4, just one point separates Spain, Germany and Ukraine with two rounds left. It could all come down to Spain’s clash with Germany in Seville on Tuesday.

Scotland, Wales to join elite?

Hot on the heels of their penalty shoot-out win over Serbia which secured qualification for Euro 2020, a rejuvenated Scotland can clinch promotion to the elite League A.

Steve Clarke’s side currently top League B, Group 2 by four points from the Czech Republic. A win in Slovakia on Sunday will therefore do the job, otherwise they have another chance to secure top spot in Israel on Wednesday.

Wales are hoping to secure first place in League B, Group 4, with a one-point lead over Finland and home games against the Republic of Ireland and the Finns to come.

World Cup incentive

While the likes of Scotland and North Macedonia qualified for Euro 2020 after coming through play-offs based on performance in the last Nations League, there is an added incentive in this edition related to the 2022 World Cup.

Qualifying for Qatar 2022 will start in March, with 10 group winners advancing to the finals. 

The 10 runners-up will go into the play-offs, where they will be joined by the best two Nations League group winners (based on overall rankings) who did not directly qualify or reach the play-offs.

A total of three World Cup spots will be available through the play-offs, so Qatar remains a long way off, but this is still an extra reason for the likes of Scotland, Wales and others to top their Nations League groups.

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