MADRID (AP) — The third edition of the Nations League begins this week with many participants already thinking about the World Cup.
National teams will get a rare opportunity to play several matches in a row — practically serving as a preseason — as the international dates were moved to June because of the World Cup beginning in November.
Some teams will play four matches in June and two more in September to finish the group stage of the biennial Nations League ahead of the World Cup in Qatar.
“This is a competition that is really close to the World Cup, so obviously these matches will be meaningful,” Portugal midfielder William Carvalho said.
The Nations League starts later Wednesday with Wales visiting Poland in the top-tier League A. On Thursday, the highlight will be the match between Spain, last year’s runner-up, and Portugal, the inaugural winner of the competition.
“We are already thinking about Portugal, it’s the start of this Nations League and we want to make it to the Final Four and, above all, prepare for the next World Cup, which will begin in no time and we will have to be ready,” Spain defender Dani Carvajal said.
For some teams, like Wales, the Nations League begins even before it has been able to qualify for the World Cup. It will visit Poland without some of its regular starters as the match comes just four days before it faces either Scotland or Ukraine in a World Cup playoff.
Scotland and Ukraine will also face each other in the Nations League as they were drawn in the same second-tier group.
Defending Nations League champion France debuts on Friday at home against Denmark, while the Netherlands visits Belgium.
“For us, playing against Holland is a real derby, a footballing derby, a big occasion and is the perfect preparation for the World Cup,” Belgium coach Roberto Martínez said. “As much as we want to enjoy the games and we want to see the games for what they are, they bring that extra dimension which is preparing for the World Cup.”
On Saturday, England is at Hungary and Germany is at Italy, one of the teams that will likely have more to play for in the Nations League as it missed out on the World Cup again.
“We have the world’s best in our sights. We want to continue down this path and we’ll see after the matches how far we still have to go,” Germany coach Hansi Flick said ahead of the nation’s four games over 10 days.
Italy and England are in the same group and in future games will play a rematch of the 2020 European Championship final won by the Italians. Likewise, France will play against Croatia in a rematch of the 2018 World Cup final.
The Nations League will also give players a chance to try to secure their spot in the World Cup if they do well so close to the tournament in Qatar.
“This is an important call-up, with the games coming just before the World Cup,” Spain forward Pablo Sarabia said. “We want to win these four matches, they will be important for the players and also as a preparation for the World Cup, which obviously we want to win.”
Many coaches will likely rotate their squads considerably in the four matches, both to test and rest players after a long season.
Belgium coach Martínez is certainly taking it seriously. He said he will use his best players to test his team ahead of the World Cup.
“This is the real competitive camp,” he said. “We’ve got 14 days, four games, something that we have never done before. It is important that we get that time together.”
Flick challenged players who were left out of his 26-man Nations League squad to keep fighting for a World Cup place even if they were not called up now.
The four group winners in the main league will make it to the Final Four, with one of the nations that qualified expected to host the finals in June next year.
The group winners in the lower tiers will gain promotion, while the last-place finishers in the top two tiers will move down.
Associated Press writers Ciarán Fahey and Samuel Petrequin contributed to this report.
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Tales Azzoni, The Associated Press