Nations League June Top 10 (2 of 3)

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By matchday 4 of the June Nations League window, things were starting to shake out in most groups. Not surprisingly, then, many of the best games of that window came in this final matchday.  The final day of matchday 3 had featured ties in all four games of both Groups 3 and 4 of League A (and between the front-runners of League B, Group 3), ensuring decisive results in this final round before the start of the new season. Here’s an account of three of the five top games whose participants are in action again today; I’ll get to the final two games tomorrow.

June 12th Norway 3 – Sweden 2 (League B, Group 4). On matchday 2, Norway beat perennial rivals Sweden 2-1, Erling Haaland scoring a brace to put them ahead, and Sweden only pulling back a consolation injury time goal by Anthony Elanga. This second meeting in Norway was an open, two-way affair throughout the first half, the only goal coming from a 10’ Haaland header off a Fredrik André Bjørkan cross. Shortly after the restart, Robin Olsen gave up a penalty for foul on Alexander Sørloth, though it took VAR some time to rule on the matter. Eventually, Haaland completed the penalty for another brace and a commanding lead for the home side.

But Emil Forsberg quickly pulled one back with a beautiful snap shot from the top of the box off a pass in from Dejan Kulusevski shortly after the hour mark. Haaland was not to be stopped, however, and having had a pass across goal knocked back to him at the left post, chipped his second attempt for Sørloth to head in Norway’s 3rd of the match at 77’. A defensive error at 95’, keeper Ørjan Nyland colliding with centerback Leo Østigård (newly arrived at Napoli from Stoke City and Genoa), allowed Viktor Gyökeres (who had been Østigård’s teammate at both St. Pauli and Coventry City) to pull one back at the death. Both sides have work left to do in the final two games, as Norway lead 2nd-place Serbia by only 3 points, while Sweden lead last-place Slovenia by just a point.

13th Kazakhstan 2 – Slovakia 1 (League C, Group 3). The most notable result on the 2nd day of matchday 4 was Croatia beating France 1-0, putting the World Champions in real threat of relegation to League B. But in the early game that day, the front-runners for promotion from Group 3 of League C faced off in a critical match, with group favorites Slovakia trailing Kazakhstan by a point going into the game. Slovakia pushed from the start, with Kazakhstan sitting back in a 5-4-1. But at 17’, a long ball up the right flank was looped high up and into the box by FC Astana’s Mikhail Gabyshev, and Salernitana’s Norbert Gyömbér allowed the ball to bounce, allowing Yan Vorogovskiy, lurking behind him, to volley in an opener.

Though Slovakia continued to have the better of the ball, Vorogovskiy continued to prove a threat, with a brilliant dribble at goal, fed in by Elkhan Astanov from the left at the half hour mark, but stopped at the left post by an equally brilliant kick save from Fulham’s Marek Rodák. At 39’, Askhat Tagybergen crossed in for Astanov to head home a second for Kazakhstan. Tagybergen had a chance of his own from 30 yards out shortly after the break, but not long after that Vitesse Arnhem’s Matúš Bero scored from outside the box to pull one back for Slovakia.

That put Slovakia on the front foot, and keeper Igor Shatsky kept his team in front with a series of excellent saves. At 79’, Juraj Kucka had a goal (rightly) disallowed for a foul on Tagybergen as the ball was delivered in. Things started getting chippy from there, and at 87’, Köln’s Ondrej Duda, who had just received a yellow at 86’ for a headbutt on Ramazan Orazov, got a straight red for a karate kick tackle.

That sealed things for Kazakhstan, who went four points ahead of Slovakia in the group and will secure an unexpected promotion if they can maintain their current halftime lead against Belarus in today’s early game. Elsewhere in League C, Turkey will secure a return to League B with a win or tie against Luxemborg today, or against the Faroe Islands on Sunday; while Georgia can also secure promotion with a win or tie against North Macedonia (and can probably still advance despite a loss, provided they can win away against Gibraltar on Monday).

14th Wales 2 – Netherlands 3 (League A, Group 4). The Netherlands’ commanding 4-1 win over Belgium in matchday 1 put them in the driver’s seat for a competitive Group 4, and they maintained that three point lead despite tying Poland 2-2, as Belgium also managed only a draw away to Wales in matchday 3. Maintaining a pattern of relatively strict squad rotation, Louis van Gaal effectively returned to the team that had beaten Wales 2-1 in matchday 2, Frenkie de Jong the only one of four changes to the matchday 2 squad to have started against Poland.

With Club Brugge’s Noa Lang scoring his first international goal at 17’, followed by PSV Eindhoven’s Cody Gakpo 6’ later, things certainly seemed to be going to plan. But only 3’ later, Harry Wilson fed Brennan Johnson at the top of the box for a well-placed shot that was only his second international goal (his first having come in the previous matchday, a late equalizer against Belgium). The Dutch continued to control the game, but it remained at that narrow one-goal margin.

Unsatisfied, van Gaal brought on Stefan de Vrij and Denzel Dumfries at halftime, to strengthen his side, and at 73’ Memphis Depay and Steven Bergwijn. Not to be outdone, Wales introduced Connor Roberts at halftime, Aaron Ramsey just after the hour mark, and Gareth Bale at 70’, so that for the final 20’ of the game both sides were playing with something approaching their best XI. Near the end of regulation, Tyrell Malacia (then of Feyenoord though now at Manchester United) barged Roberts in an ariel duel, and VAR eventually awarded a penalty that Bale put past a correctly-guessing Jasper Cillessen to draw Wales level at the death.

Or almost the death, for at 93’ Dumfries headed a long ball on for Bergwijn breaking into the box on the right. Ben Davies intervened with a header, but the redirected ball fell to Depay in the middle to punch home a late winner that maintained the Netherlands position atop the group.  That stunning turnaround means that a win today against Poland would require the Dutch to lose their Sunday game at home against Belgium by more than three goals to miss out on a semi-final birth; and even a loss today would allow them to advance with a tie or win. And these scenarios presume a Belgian win against Wales today.

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