UEFA Nations League: Biggest storylines, players to watch, ultimate team by team guide

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When the Nations League was first proposed, there was a collective groan across the continent as everyone wondered why more international football was required and whether any team would treat this tournament as competitive just because UEFA said it was.

- What and when is the UEFA Nations League?

But it has turned out to be a roaring success, and for the four teams involved it represents the focus of their year.

England are the favourites, while opponents Netherlands have a fine young team (live on ESPN2, 2.45 p.m. ET, June 6); Portugal have home advantage, but their semifinal opposition Switzerland are always dangerous (live on ESPN2, 2.45 p.m. ET, June 5). It's easy to make a case for any of them to win: throw in the unpredictability that such a short finals will bring and it should be hugely entertaining.

Key storylines

CAN ENGLAND'S YOUNG LIONS SUCCEED? Gareth Southgate's tenure as England manager has brought colossal promise, with his own progressive style making the general public like the team again. The crop of brilliant young players indicates a bright future, but this tournament represents a chance for some tangible achievement: a trophy to cap that potential.

ARE THE DUTCH BACK? It's a similar story for Netherlands. Having not qualified for both the last World Cup and European Championships, a new generation of players has emerged under coach Ronald Koeman. With Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong coming through at Ajax, and Virgil van Dijk and Georginio Wijnaldum starring in Liverpool's Champions League triumph, a good performance here would indicate that the Dutch are back as an international force.

WILL RONALDO CLAIM ANOTHER TROPHY? At the other end of the age scale, could this be Cristiano Ronaldo's last chance to make an impact on the international stage with Portugal? He is 34 and still in phenomenal shape, but the decline in an ageing player's powers is always unpredictable, and he was handled with care by Juventus last season. He'll probably still be around for Euro 2020, but on home soil this may be his most realistic remaining opportunity for personal glory in a Portugal shirt.

Players to watch

Jadon Sancho -- England

The rise of Sancho has been extraordinary, from a prodigy at Manchester City to Borussia Dortmund's most threatening attacker in barely a year. It's a testament to Southgate that he has seen no problem with introducing the winger straight into the starting XI, and with him and Raheem Sterling either side of Harry Kane, England have the most exciting forward line in Europe.

Joao Felix -- Portugal

One of the most sought-after players in Europe, Felix won his first senior call-up from Fernando Santos for the Nations League finals after a brilliant season with Benfica. The forward might not go straight into the starting XI, but his talent is such that he surely can't be ignored completely.

Noah Okafor -- Switzerland

To complete a trio of exciting young attackers, Switzerland's wild card in what is otherwise a relatively familiar squad is 19-year-old Okafor. Eligible for Nigeria through his father, there had been some debate about who the Basel winger would represent, but his call-up for the Nations League squad seems to have settled that one. Given a spot after Breel Embolo's injury ruled him out, Okafor could be a player with some X factor for the Swiss.

Team-by-team Guide


Why they'll win: The promising thing for England is that the run to the World Cup semifinals has not proved to be an isolated glorious summer, fondly remembered but ultimately meaningless in the wider scheme of things as many feared might happen. The introduction of players like Sancho has meant Southgate's side have emphatically kicked on, losing just once since returning from Russia. They are a vibrant young team with plenty of attacking options and a sense of purpose.

Why they won't: England are in a curious position given that half of their starters won't have played for nearly a month, while the other half were involved in the Champions League final, so they could either be rusty or exhausted. Spurs' Harry Kane was injured for most of the run-in, Dele Alli was out of form and Jordan Pickford had a poor season for Everton, so there are enough questions about their key men to cause concerns.

Key player: Raheem Sterling

The transformation from talented-but-inconsistent winger to one of the world's best forwards is complete. Under Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, Sterling has flourished, and that has translated to international football over the past year too, as he has scored six times in his past five England games. With doubts about Kane, Sterling will be England's primary attacking threat, and after the season of his life in the Premier League, he'll be an exceptional threat.

Best XI (4-3-3): Pickford; Walker, Maguire, Stones, Rose; Henderson, Rice, Alli; Sterling, Kane, Sancho.


Why they'll win: Netherlands are Netherlands again. Or something close to it. After a few years of despair and defeats, which amounted to a national identity crisis, the Dutch were galvanised again by defeating the old enemy Germany in qualification, and a new generation of talent has brought them back to being an international power again. If they can replicate the success of Ajax in the Champions League, transplanting the heart of that side into their own, then they could easily come out on top in Portugal.

Why they won't: While they are exceptionally strong in defence and have plenty of talent in midfield, their striking options are thin. Their starting attacking three is likely to be Ryan Babel, Memphis Depay and Quincy Promes, who only managed 18 league goals between them last season. Youngster Steven Bergwijn, who did well for PSV, could come in, but the concern for the Dutch will be scoring enough goals to make an impact.

Key player: Matthijs de Ligt

Reportedly on his way to Barcelona, the classy centre-back will form one of the most elegant defensive partnerships around with Virgil van Dijk. While the Liverpool man was arguably Europe's top player in his position last season, De Ligt is the man from which the Dutch attacks start and who will dictate play. If he's on form, the chances are Netherlands will be too.

Best XI (4-3-3): Cillessen; Dumfries, De Ligt, Van Dijk, Blind; Van de Beek, De Jong, Wijnaldum; Babel, Depay, Promes.


Why they'll win: It will be interesting to see how much of a factor home advantage is in a tournament where each team will only play twice. An intangible like that could be enough in a single game, even though it didn't do them much good back at Euro 2004. Something else to consider is that they have a lot of players arriving on the back of excellent seasons: Bernardo Silva was one of the Premier League's best performers, Diogo Jota, Rui Patricio, Ruben Neves and Joao Moutinho were all terrific for Wolves, and Joao Felix has roared onto the scene with Benfica.

Why they won't: Goals could be an issue. They have drawn each of their past four games, scoring just twice in the process, admittedly without Cristiano Ronaldo for a couple of those. Could that indicate a lack of killer instinct? Or not quite playing to the strengths of their available players? Andre Silva is injured, so you suspect that Ronaldo will have to play through the middle, not his preferred role, although could there be a case for partnering him with either Felix or Jota?

Key player: Bernardo Silva

Naturally, all eyes will be on Ronaldo and the chances are Portugal will still look to their greatest ever player if they need a goal or moment of inspiration. But Bernardo Silva is their outstanding performer these days, essentially two players in one with his creative instincts coupled with the absurd work rate that has emerged at City.

Best XI (4-2-4): Patricio; Cancelo, Pepe, Dias, Guerreiro; Carvalho, Neves; Bernardo Silva, Ronaldo, Jota, Rafa Silva.


Why they'll win: If you need any further indication of how dangerous Switzerland can be, not only did they qualify from a group containing Belgium, recently installed as the No.1 ranked team in the world, they beat Roberto Martinez's side 5-2 the second time they faced each other, blitzing the Belgians after going 2-0 behind. Those FIFA rankings are often criticised, but there's a reason that Switzerland are consistently rated in the world's top 10.

Why they won't: For all their consistency in racking up those ranking points and reaching major tournaments, having qualified for six of the past seven World Cups and European Championships, they haven't won a knockout game in any of those. To do that for the first time against the hosts in the semifinal, then facing either England or Netherlands in the final, looks like a step too far.

Key player: Xherdan Shaqiri

The Liverpool forward is still his country's most influential player, particularly as right-back Stephan Lichtsteiner was left out of the squad. What will be interesting is where he plays: coach Vladimir Petkovic has experimented with the formation in the past few games, but Shaqiri's best form for Liverpool came in the first half of the season when he played just behind the front man in a 4-2-3-1.

Best XI (4-2-3-1): Sommer; Mbabu, Schar, Akanji, Rodriguez; Xhaka, Freuler; Fernandes, Shaqiri, Zuber; Seferovic.