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Saturday, 15 December, 2018

Nations League's opening weekend encourages optimism

Spain 11-4 for inaugural title

September 2018: the month that soccer changed ... for the better?
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Uefa’s grand new project, the Nations League, made its debut over the weekend and though it’s far too early to tell whether it’s going to be a smash hit, the initial reaction from the betting community has been cautiously optimistic.

Rolled out to a mix of yawning indifference and bemusement, Uefa’s endeavour to rid the calendar of the much-maligned international friendly has to be a laudable one. Although, worryingly, talk of this being the forerunner of a Global Nations League smacks of one or two folk in Zurich having too much time on their hands.

“A decade from now, we may look back on September 2018 as the month that soccer changed ... for the better,” wrote one lovestruck hack. 

England, Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland all played one friendly and one Nations League game over the weekend, providing a chance for punters to compare and contrast the two international options.

Let's assess how the different factions are viewing the new era:

Bookmakers 

The response from bookmakers to the Nations League has been mixed, but mildly positive overall.

Firms reported decent turnover though acknowledged that, in England’s case, it might have been the calibre of their Nations League opponents – Spain – rather than the new competition which got the tills ringing.

Of course, though, it's the Nations League itself that means England will be taking on Europe's finest - unless they get relegated to the second tier, of course.

“We did not see anywhere near as much interest in the Switzerland friendly as we did for the Spain tie,” said John Hill of Coral. “Collectively though, it seems people have fallen back in love with England which can only be good news for bookmakers.”

"There was definitely more interest from the customers due to the competitive nature of the new tournament," said Alan Alger of Betway. "The fixtures were nicely spread out over the international break - virtually every evening had a few matches involving top teams.

"We took more on the match against Spain than against Switzerland which is surprising given that England were a shorter price for the second game," said Hills spokesman Joe Crilly. "This is a good sign for future turnover on this tournament and suggests that punters are looking at the competitive fixtures as a more reliable punt than friendlies."

Ray Gunn, football trader at Paddy Power, is not so keen on the new venture. “Our punters seem to want club football back,” he said. “It’s still early days, but it looks like the performance was comparable to a typical international break. The added competitive element would have helped, but it wasn’t much different to a weekend of qualifiers and friendlies.”

Where layers have seen precious little action is in group and outright betting though they acknowledge that will doubtless change the deeper into the event we go. 

"When punters have seen that teams can qualify through this event, the betting markets and turnover on outright and group markets will increase," added Crilly.

Punters 

Punters have little time for international football outside of the World Cup or Euros, and even less time for international friendlies. Weakened sides, too many substitutions and nothing of substance on the line are obvious negatives.

Take away those vagaries by introducing a competitive element and surely bettors will want to get involved was the thinking.

Interestingly, in the last international break in March, there were 60 friendlies in total featuring European sides and 29 of those matches (or 49 per cent) produced wins for the favourites.

Over the last week there have been 46 Nations League matches with 27 favourites (59 per cent) obliging.

If the formbook – and pricing – stands up, punters can afford to take it more seriously. 

Spain are the 11-4 favourites after opening up with two wins with France 4-1 and Belgium 9-2.

England are 9-2 to turn it around to win their three-team group with Scotland 10-11 to win their section in the third tier.

Fans 

Supporters just love England at the moment. Gareth Southgate’s men could play 20 minutes of head tennis on Bournemouth beach and they might get a crowd of 81,000, which was the number who were at Wembley to see them take on Spain on Saturday.

That’s roughly the same attendance as the friendlies against Germany, Brazil and Italy last season in prestigious pre-World Cup warm-ups.

This time last year, however, England were playing Slovakia in a World Cup qualifier and just 67,000 went through the Wembley turnstiles.

Give England will be facing decent opponents - their World Cup semi-final conquerors Croatia are next at Wembley on November 18 -expect decent crowds, whether the matches are competitive or not.

Windsor Park felt like it was rocking for Northern Ireland against Bosnia, yet the crowd figure of 16,942 was down on their World Cup qualifiers. Indeed, more turned up to watch South Korea in a friendly in March.

Wales and Ireland met in a World Cup qualifier at Cardiff City Stadium last autumn and 32,711 were there. On Thursday night they met again in front of 26,657.

Just 17,000 were at Hampden Park to watch Scotland play Albania, hardly surprising given the weather, the opposition and the fact that Scottish national team crowds are generally in decline. 

Managers 

We know club managers loathe international football and the sight of Jose Mourinho watching from in the Wembley stands as Luke Shaw was knocked out cold on Saturday, said more than a thousand words.

It's a big headache for Mourinho as well as Shaw and there would have been a similar sinking feeling at Goodison Park when Marco Silva learned that Seamus Coleman had suffered a broken foot playing for Ireland.

Those knocks will have been replicated around Europe and whether internationals are meaningful or meaningless they produce injuries.

The Nations League might be the next big thing, but to club bosses it simply represents another opportunity for their star players to pick up knocks - and that should be more likely with fewer subs allowed in the new competition than in friendlies.

The next round of Nations League games comes right in the middle of the Champions League and Europa League group stages. Expect to see more withdrawals than we did this time.


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If the formbook and pricing stands up, punters can afford to take it more seriously
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