The inaugural UEFA Women’s Nations League (UWNL) group stage has wrapped up and it certainly provided plenty of drama over the last round of fixtures in League A. France and Spain had already sealed their place in February’s finals playoff (where the two finalists will qualify for the 2024 Olympics), but nobody could have predicted what happened with England and Netherlands, or even Germany and Denmark.
Nations League playoff final: France. Spain, Netherlands, Germany
Relegation/Promotion Group A/B playoff: Belgium, Norway, Iceland, Sweden, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina
Relegated from Group A: Scotland, Portugal, Switzerland, Wales
Promoted from Group B: Republic of Ireland, Finland, Poland, Czechia
Dutch drama at the death
There was a grandstand finish to the Nations League group stage as Netherlands scored twice in the final few minutes to beat Belgium 4-0 and seal top spot in Group A1, while England‘s 6-0 win over Scotland did not prove enough.
Two goals from Lineth Beerensteyn had put the Dutch 2-0 ahead, but by the time the 90th minute arrived they were heading out because England were up 5-0 and going through. Incredibly, defensive midfielder Damaris Egurrola‘s strike at the start of stoppage time seemed to have tipped the scales back in the favour of the Dutch, but less than a minute later in Glasgow, Lucy Bronze scored to take England back to the top of the group on goal difference.
If you thought the drama was over; it wasn’t. In final minute of stoppage time, and with seven different attackers on the pitch, the Dutch crafted one last attack which ended with Egurrola the saviour again and some wild celebrations.
— OranjeLeeuwinnen (@oranjevrouwen) December 6, 2023
It could, and arguably should, have been easier for Netherlands. The hosts had 34 shots, 15 of which were on target as Belgium goalkeeper Nicky Evrard kept almost everything out — although many were tame efforts that were easily dealt with. But in the end they did enough. Just.
England go from joy to despair
It’s been an up-and-down year for England and, even with plenty of success on the pitch, there’s been a protracted feeling of flatness. But, needing a big win against rivals Scotland to qualify above Netherlands, the Lionesses delivered with a 6-0 success that showed far more of the spark that helped them win Euro 2022.
Yes, there were still missed chances in front of goal, but Beth Mead‘s return up front helped rekindle the sparkle in attack and Lauren James‘ individual brilliance continues to drive them on. In the end, despite Bronze’s late effort, England fell one goal shy of what they needed because of the late Dutch drama, but the performance at least answers some questions.
Germany should have been riding a wave after the 3-0 win over Denmark last week put them in pole position to qualify top of Group A3. But needing three points against bottom-side Wales, who had lost five of their six games, Horst Hrubesch’s side struggled to a 0-0 draw that could have proved disastrous.
With Hrubesch reluctant to add more attacking thrust to the team until it was too late, it was an odd game to end an odd year for Germany. But you have to give credit to Wales. It would have been easy to capitulate in the final game, given their results, but they continued to show some fighting spirit and finally got a reward for their determined play, pressing the visiting defence and working as a group to claim their first point of the campaign. It was nothing more than a consolation as they were relegated to League B, but it’s a reminder that this team are still growing under coach Gemma Grainger.
Denmark let Germany off as Birkisdóttir impresses for Iceland
Denmark likely came into their clash with Iceland assuming that Germany would get the win they needed to progress. But as Germany were held goalless by Wales, Denmark had their own issues and struggled to break the visitors down as they fell to a 1-0 defeat.
Given Germany’s lapse, a win would have sent Denmark through, but instead it was Karólína Lea Vilhjálmsdóttir’s late goal which delivered all three points to Iceland. Though the plaudits should go to 18-year-old Iceland goalkeeper Fanney Inga Birkisdóttir, who kept a clean sheet on her debut despite coming under 20 shots (five on target) from the Danes.
Chaos in Spain after a tough year
It’s been a hectic and draining year for Spain (mainly due to the fallout from FA chief Luis Rubiales’ unsolicited kiss on the lips of Jenni Hermoso after their victory in the World Cup final) and, despite having already secured a spot in the playoff semifinals, the team looked lost and shapeless for large parts against Sweden.
Going 3-1 down inside half an hour, Spain rallied in the second half and there were just three minutes between Mariona’s equaliser and Fiamma Benítez’ go-ahead goal as they ran out eventual 5-3 winners. Spain’s the sheer talent across the team once again did the job. It might not have been convincing, but it was entertaining.
Seger ends her Sweden career on the bench
Somewhere amid the chaos in Malaga, Sweden’s most-capped player Caroline Seger sat on the bench watching the match unfold, waiting for one last chance to take to the pitch for her country.
Yet for the most-capped European player in the women’s game, her 241st appearance never came and instead the 38-year-old midfielder’s 18-year international career ended in the dugout. The record will show that her last minutes for Sweden were spent unceremoniously battling back for a point against Italy in October.
Norway still struggling
The best way of predicting how Norway will fare in any match may be to just flip a coin, as there is little rhyme or reason to suggest how well the 1995 world champions will do right now.
Needing to beat Austria to overtake them for second place and avoid a relegation playoff, Norway returned to their recognisable frustrating selves in a 2-1 defeat as the quality on the pitch failed to align with the talent of the squad under interim coach Leif Gunnar Smerud.
Norway had to chase the game after going behind in the ninth minute and it was of little surprise when Marit Bratberg Lund couldn’t even find the target with her second-half penalty. It may take something seismic to lift this side out of the disappointing funk that has become so familiar.
Republic of Ireland celebrate in style
Already promoted from Group B1 with plenty of games to spare and 10 points ahead of the chasing pack, there was little beyond pride at stake for the Republic of Ireland when they lined up against neighbours Northern Ireland in Belfast, but that didn’t stop the visitors from turning on the style for a 6-1 win.
It was the most ruthless we’ve seen Eileen Gleeson’s side during this Nations League campaign and only served to further highlight how much the squad are enjoying their football. Although the opposition will get stronger in League A next year, Ireland have already proved that they can mix it with the best.
Hungary on the up
The development of Hungary, who are ranked 42nd in the world, under Margret Kratz has flown under the radar for many over the past two years. Helped out by an improving player pool, Kratz has evolved the team’s playing style and, although they were only pitted against Albania (FIFA rank No. 72), the Magyars are in a far healthier position now.
Although a promotion playoff will ask a lot of Hungary, it will be a good litmus test for the diminutive nation.
Was this Nations League a success?
The UWNL has faced scepticism for a number of reasons: Did we actually need it for the very narrow band of Olympic qualification? Isn’t it just further increasing heavy loading, with even less room for rotation? But it’s been a success for most of the participants. It has added a layer of drama for some and pushed others beyond their comfort zones, while getting rid of the majority of uncomfortably lopsided scorelines.
Out of the 51 teams involved, only two (Turkey and the Republic of Ireland) managed to win every game they played, and only two (the Faroe Islands and Armenia, two of the four lowest-ranked nations) failed to pick up a single point.
Two years ago, England’s 20-0 win over Latvia in World Cup qualifying made headlines to highlight the fact that huge, unbalanced, scorelines weren’t a rarity in women’s football. But that seems to have been consigned to history now. Yes, there have still been 6-0 drubbings handed out over this Nations League, but overall teams have benefited from playing those around them and have raised their own levels as a result.