International men’s football: talking points from the week’s action – The Guardian

England’s limp finish masks their promise

The numbed anticlimax of Sunday’s third-place play-off ensured the lingering impression of England’s Nations League campaign was one of deflation, as if any hint of progress over the last year had been a mirage. In truth, it was hard to gauge improvements given the disruptions caused by the Champions League and Europa League finals. There were promising passages in each game and periods when the team rather lost their way. But development could be measured in the impact made by Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joe Gomez, or by Jadon Sancho and Declan Rice in flashes. Another semi-final was lost but a second successive penalty shootout was won. The squad unity that had been a feature at the World Cup was maintained, with an injection of youth offering promise for the future. This all felt more of a useful exercise than the alternative: two Euro 2020 qualifiers against whipping boys. Dominic Fifield

Robinson makes his case despite Brady’s success

Dullness in midfield and bluntness in front of goal remain acute problems for the Republic of Ireland. The biggest positive for them during Monday’s grim home win against Gibraltar was the bright display by Callum Robinson, who had been given only two minutes against Denmark on Friday. The Preston winger was regularly dangerous and formed a good relationship on the right with Séamus Coleman. So it was puzzling when Robinson, and not the way-out-of-form Jeff Hendrick or James McClean, was substituted after 73 minutes. But when Robinson’s replacement, Robbie Brady, scored a late goal from an exquisite cross by McClean, McCarthy could claim vindication. Brady and McClean will need to reproduce moments like that with much more regularity to justify being chosen ahead of Robinson and Callum O’Dowda. Ireland top their group but the most difficult assignments are ahead. Paul Doyle

No need for this Dutch spine to be broken up

If the Netherlands’ players looked tired in Porto on Sunday night, maybe it’s because they were. The Dutch had a day less to prepare. They couldn’t find the edge to chase down a fine Portugal team. But something is stirring here, to the extent the Netherlands already look a decent prospect to resume their status as bright but brittle outsiders before Qatar 2022. Another good thing about international football: other countries can’t sign all your best players. So the Ajax spine will remain even as it ceases to be an Ajax spine. Frenkie de Jong will be in his luminous pomp come the next World Cup. Ryan Babel may or may not be a better option than Donny van de Beek (he’s not), but Ronald Koeman has a wave of young attacking talent simmering away. Europe needs a strong Netherlands. The Dutch have so often been the masters off good habits and beautiful football that falls decoratively short at the last. Some more of the same can only be a good thing. Barney Ronay

Frenkie de Jong of the Netherlands should be in his pomp come the 2022 World Cup.

Frenkie de Jong of the Netherlands should be in his pomp come the 2022 World Cup. Photograph: Soccrates Images/Getty Images

Kosovo making a name for themselves

It raised a few eyebrows when the FA announced England will host Kosovo at St Mary’s, rather than Wembley, in September. Were Bernard Challandes’ fledgling side really not that much of a draw? No one with an ounce of knowledge will underestimate them on the pitch: Monday’s 3-2 win in Bulgaria, sealed by Elbasan Rashani’s 92nd-minute header amid wild celebrations, brought up 14 games unbeaten. As a minimum, Kosovo should fight the Czech Republic for second place in Group A. Challandes’ team are scintillating in possession and won in Sofia despite missing the injured Arber Zeneli, one of their two top-class wingers; the other, Milot Rashica, came up with a goal and an assist. They might not fill Wembley just yet but it is hard to think of a more crowd-pleasing international team in Europe at the moment. Nick Ames

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No resting on laurels for Portugal

Champions of Europe and now Nations League winners. What next for Fernando Santos and his Portugal side? . Cristiano Ronaldo will be 35 by the time they attempt to defend the European Championship next summer but is showing no signs of losing his knack for goals as, with 88, he closes in on a century for his country. There is an exciting new generation, with Manchester City’s Bernardo Silva, Bruno Fernandes and Gonçalo Guedes – scorer of the winner against the Netherlands. The defender Rúben Dias, who has been linked with a move from Benfica to Real Madrid, has provided some new blood at the back, while the teenage forward João Félix looks capable of forcing his way into the starting lineup over the next 12 months. Santos himself, 64, has embraced the challenge of rebuilding a winning team. “We have lots of talent,” the wily coach said this week. “The future is guaranteed, but we have to try and find the balance.” Ed Aarons

Neres going places with Brazil

“In front of the goal all I could think of was to get it right,” said Brazil’s David Neres. “I looked at the middle of the box to see if there was anyone free. There wasn’t, so I did it myself.” It’s that kind of decision-making that has won the Ajax forward so many admirers and his first senior international goal in Sunday’s 7-0 demolition of Honduras was definitely one to remember. Spotting the smallest of gaps at the near post, an impudent flick with his left foot took everyone by surprise as Neres wheeled away in celebration. He is expected to fill the Neymar-shaped void when Brazil begin their Copa América campaign against Bolivia in São Paulo on Saturday despite having only three caps. Neres has been linked with Chelsea this summer, although that would depend on their transfer ban being lifted. A few more goals like Sunday’s will see plenty of others knocking on Ajax’s door. EA

Brazil’s David Neres, here scoring during training, got his first international goal against Honduras.

Brazil’s David Neres, here scoring during training, got his first international goal against Honduras. Photograph: Mauro Pimentel/AFP/Getty Images

Spain’s tale of two Premier League goalkeepers

“I get the feeling that people in Spain don’t watch a lot of foreign football,” said the country’s acting coach, Robert Moreno. If they did, he insisted, they would not have been surprised at the inclusion of Kepa Arrizabalaga ahead of David de Gea. Luis Enrique, the coach missing at present for family reasons, has used 43 players in 10 matches in charge, many only fleetingly, and this get-together brought more changes: Santi Cazorla, Fabián, and Dani Parejo, all of whom might anticipate more opportunities. Kepa starting was perhaps the most striking shift. If inclusion against the Faroe Islands might not have meant much, when the Chelsea keeper was named in the team that beat Sweden 3-0, it suggested a more permanent change – this was his third start in a row. “I can understand David being sad,” Kepa said. “I am working the way I did at my club to keep the coach’s trust.” Sid Lowe

Nations League is Scotland’s best hope

It should have been a minimum requirement for Alex McLeish to top a Nations League section that also included Israel and Albania. That Scotland did, just about, wasn’t enough to save McLeish’s job but is significant in context of his successor. Steve Clarke cannot say it, but Scotland’s best hope of a Euro 2020 berth still lies in the Nations League route. That was always likely to be the case, bar a miracle in Brussels that wasn’t forthcoming. In his defence, and owing partly to the Scottish FA’s dallying when replacing McLeish, Clarke didn’t have nearly enough time to plot a possible upset of the imperious Belgians. The flow of the match and outcome were pretty familiar. With Russia and Belgium formidable in Group I and Scotland’s debacle in Kazakhstan leaving them fourth in the section, the coming months must be used by Clarke to formulate a plan aimed at confirming a Euros place via the back door. Finland plus Norway or Serbia shouldn’t be overly treacherous opposition, given Clarke’s organisational and motivational skills. He must keep public interest in Group I alive when a more meaningful set of matches follow. Ewan Murray

Scotland, unable here to prevent Kevin De Bruyne from scoring in a 3-0 defeat in Belgium, must hope to reach the Euros via the back door.

Scotland, unable here to prevent Kevin De Bruyne from scoring in a 3-0 defeat in Belgium, must hope to reach the Euros via the back door. Photograph: Bradley Collyer/PA

Where did the Turkey that beat France go?

Turkey suffered their first defeat of the Senol Gunes era, losing 2-1 in Iceland. They had won all five previous games under Gunes, including a shock victory over France last Saturday, but Gylfi Sigurdsson put his side ahead on 21 minutes, doubled his tally soon after and Iceland could easily have scored more before half-time against opponents who looked jaded, unprepared and devoid of a game plan. Although Turkey pulled a goal back before the interval through a Dorukhan Tokoz looping header, it was not enough. Gunes was missing several key players, including Cengiz Under, Okay Yokuslu, Cenk Tosun and Mahmut Tekdemir, but the team looked a shadow of the side that beat Les Bleus. It is starting to look like a three-horse race in Group H, with France, Turkey and Iceland tied on nine points after four games. Emre Sarigul

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