There is the thrill of the new to all aspects of the inaugural Nations League for Scotland. As with every other country in Europe, the competition is an intriguing departure from dotting friendlies across the international calendar on the dates not taken up with qualifiers for the European Championship. The actual specifics of the competition for Scotland also seem fresh and unknown.
The draw in Lausanne yesterday that placed Scotland in a group alongside Albania and Israel will ensure the games – to be played between September and November – will pit them against unfamiliar foes in an unfamiliar contest.
The initial reaction was that the Pot 3 draw (or League C as they call it) – with the continent’s 55 nations split into four pots according to their Uefa national team coefficients – had been ultra-kind to the country. Scotland’s Group 1 is the only of the four across their pot – there being 16 groups across the Nations League with four groups of three or four teams in each of the Leagues A, B, C and D – with only three teams. SFA chief executive Stewart Regan, in between dodging verbal grenades over the Michael O’Neill managerial pursuit blowing up in his face, called the ties “winnable”. Certainly, Scotland have never lost to Albania or Israel. Alright, so they have never actually played Albania, and the last of their two wins against Israel was 32 years ago.
Close analysis doesn’t make the Nations League picture look quite so straightforward for Scotland. Albania didn’t just make the Euro 2016 finals, they registered a win there, with a 1-0 victory over Romania. It is 22 years since Scotland could boast such a feat at a major finals. Subsequent to that, Albania, like Scotland, finished third in their six-team group in failing to reach this summer’s World Cup finals. That was a more than creditable showing considering they had Spain and Italy in their group. Also in their section just happened to be Israel, the teams trading off 3-0 home wins, curiously.
Albania made an impression at Euro 2016 not just for their first outing in a finals but down to the composition of their squad. They played Switzerland in Group A, and it attracted much publicity because they could have fielded six Swiss-born players while the Swiss could field six players eligible to play for Albania. Indeed, while Taulant Xhaka featured for Albania as they lost 1-0 to the Swiss, his brother Granit Xhaka featured for the victors, both born in Basel to Kosovan-Albanian parents. Migration of Albanians to the mountainous nation 1,000 miles away accounts for the “Swiss-ization” of the Albanian national team.
In a SFA press release yesterday, Hearts captain Christophe Berra hit upon the fact that an “intriguing prospect” represented by the Nations League is wrapped up in the fact that it offers qualifying places for the Euro 2020 finals – four games of which will be played at Hampden to make Scotland’s absence from it, to quote Regan, “unthinkable”.
Reading the operating instructions for the Hubble Space Telescope might be akin to getting a grip on how the Nations League will work. Essentially, two competitive elements run in tandem.
The most intriguing one is the route, mightily convoluted it must be said, offered to Euro 2020. Across the four groups in each league, the highest finishing teams not to make Euro 2020 through the qualification campaign that will be the standard format and contested in 2019, will play-off with one-game semi-finals and a one-off final in March 2020 that will secure the winner a berth in the tournament. That is a huge carrot for the lower ranking league, and means Uefa is, encouragingly, extending the franchise to its international tournaments at a time when club competitions such as the Champions League are squeezing the involvement of the smaller teams.
Aside from this, the Nations League brings ends in itself. The four group winners from League A will, next June, play-off with one-game semi-finals and a one-off final to decide the Nation League winners in a mini-tournament called the Final Four. The group winners from all other leagues will be promoted, with the bottom teams in each of these groups relegated. The exception is Scotland’s group. As it just had to be. If the team at the bottom of this three-team section has a better record than any other third-placed finishers from the three other groups in League C, that team will be relegated.