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Points to prove for all of Nations League final four

The UEFA Nations League trophy. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP

Aiming to follow in the footsteps of Portugal and France, four of Europe’s strongest sides this week battle to win the third edition of the UEFA Nations League.

Hosts the Netherlands face Croatia in Rotterdam on Wednesday in the first semi-final, while Spain and Italy clash in Enschede on Thursday, ahead of Sunday’s final.

None of the “final four” have won a trophy in over a decade, except for Italy — although the Euro 2020 champions have plenty to prove themselves after failing to qualify for the 2022 World Cup.

The two-yearly tournament began in 2018, giving European nations more competitive fixtures instead of international friendlies, with the four group winners of the strongest “A” tier reaching the final four.

Quarter-finalists in Qatar, the Netherlands’ last success came in the 1988 European Championship.

“We can write history,” coach Ronald Koeman told reporters Saturday.

“It was always about a European Championship or World Cup, but now the Nations League has been added.

“They are still talking about 1988, when there were eight teams (in the tournament). That says it all.”

Koeman was at the helm when the Netherlands finished runners-up to Portugal in the first Nations League finals, in 2019.

The coach, who later departed to take over at Barcelona but returned in January, hopes home advantage can push his team on.

“The players push themselves and perform better as a team,” Koeman told UEFA.

Netherlands got the better of Belgium, Poland and Wales in Group A4 to reach the finals.

In their way lies a Croatia side which proved their mettle in the World Cup by knocking out favourites Brazil and ultimately finishing third.

For some players, including Real Madrid midfield maestro Luka Modric, the tournament represents one of the last chances to win silverware at international level — something Croatia have never managed. 

“It would be phenomenal to win the Nations League and snatch a trophy for Croatia,” striker Andrej Kramaric told UEFA. 

“For a number of us older players, this seems like a great chance to mark our international career with a trophy.”

Croatia beat France in Paris on their way to topping Group A1, also finishing ahead of Denmark and Austria.

Both the Netherlands and Zlatko Dalic’s Croatia will be missing key defenders through injury, with Matthijs de Ligt and Josko Gvardiol sidelined respectively.

Mediterranean derby

Spain finished runners-up to France in the 2021 finals, beating Italy in the first game.

The sides have clashed multiple times on big stages, including in the Euro 2020 semis, with Italy progressing on penalties before beating England to lift the trophy.

The last time Spain won a trophy, at Euro 2012, they thrashed Italy 4-0 in the final.

Luis de la Fuente’s team arrive in the tournament under pressure after a 2-0 loss against Scotland in March in Euro 2024 qualifying.

The coach was a surprise replacement for Luis Enrique after Spain were knocked out of the World Cup by Morocco in the last 16.

Goalkeeper Unai Simon said Spain’s style of play had not changed too much under De la Fuente.

“We go direct a bit more, but generally it hasn’t changed a lot,” Simon told a news conference Monday.

“There are areas that change and we have to adapt to that (but) we have the key elements and with them we’ll go all out against Italy.”

Spain reached the final four under Luis Enrique by seeing off Portugal, Switzerland and Czech Republic in Group A2.

Italy coach Roberto Mancini has called up five Inter Milan players for the finals, who will arrive after finishing runners-up in the Champions League final.

Rodri, who scored the winning goal for Manchester City in Istanbul, is part of Spain’s squad.

After missing the World Cup, the final four provides another chance for Italy to flex their muscles.

Mancini says the Nations League campaign allowed him a look at some of the country’s emerging stars, including Giacomo Raspadori of Napoli and Leeds’ Wilfried Gnonto.

“It’s a pleasure for me to let these young lads play in such high-profile matches,” he told UEFA.

“Having them compete in such high-level games surely helped them grow.”

Italy won Group A3, ahead of Germany, England and Hungary.

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