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Third-place match a nonsense that UEFA should leave behind

Third-place match a nonsense the Nations League should leave behind

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England made seven changes and switched between formations but Gareth Southgate will have learnt little from an entirely pointless match.

Fabian Schar and Kevin Mbabu probably did not appreciate the attempts of their opponents to rouse this lulling Nations League occasion.

Nations League: 3rd place debate

England midfielder Fabian Delph lined up a slide tackle from some distance on his Swiss namesake in the 18th minute, avoiding the yellow card that fellow former Leeds United youth teamer Danny Rose would collect for clattering into Mbabu.

It amounted to a percussive form of West Yorkshire resuscitation on a goalless match it was virtually impossible to shake any life into before Jordan Pickford scored and saved to win it on penalties.

Following the 3-1 defeat to Netherlands on Thursday, there was talk of Gareth Southgate's men having a semi-final problem, having fallen to Croatia at the same stage of the World Cup 12 months ago.

Given the abject state of the country's national football team for much of this century, it feels like a luxurious quandary. Elite players need no extra motivation to reach finals, but the incentive of avoiding further trips to the relevance vacuum of third-place matches might just sharpen the minds of the Three Lions.

For their part, Southgate and his players tried to make their outing at Estadio D. Afonso Henriques as useful as possible.

A line-up featuring seven changes was able to switch between three and four at the back as a result of Eric Dier's presence. Such flexibility could be a useful string to their bow against high-class opposition, given a common theme of the Croatia and Netherlands losses was England becoming a touch predictable and therefore unable to turn the tide when the games began to slip from their grasp.

As expected, Southgate changed his full-backs, with Rose and Trent Alexander-Arnold underlining the embarrassment of riches in that department. Alexander-Arnold rounded off a fine season with an accomplished display. His delivery for Dele Alli to head wastefully over 10 minutes before half-time was exquisite.

Raheem Sterling frequently launched into those scampering runs that have elevated 51 Manchester City games this season, one of which led to Callum Wilson's disallowed goal that briefly looked to have spared the ordeal of extra time. The City forward's thumping free-kick against the crossbar was the closest anyone came to averting penalties.

But the tank looked empty as Sterling lacked his usual verve and sharpness in missed chances and heavy touches. It is entirely understandable.

Season ending extension

A head-scratching format and the bolting of more competitive fixtures onto an already packed calendar meant UEFA's launch of the Nations League received a lukewarm response.

But the action across September, October and November last year frequently delighted, never more so than when it involved the two teams dutifully fulfilling their obligations in Guimaraes.

England's feelgood factor from Russia 2018 rumbled on with stirring wins over Spain and Croatia, while Switzerland's logic-defying 5-2 comeback to sink Belgium and book their place in Portugal ranks among the very best performances of 2018-19.

The June staging of the last four is more or less unavoidable and the tournament has the finalist it needs in hosts Portugal, with Porto braced for its latest bout of Ronaldo-mania later on Sunday.

By full-time in that game, you might only remember major events from this one because it carried on half an hour longer than anyone wanted.

UEFA does not have a third place at the European Championship – much to its credit when set against the World Cup trudging on with its own fumble for bronze – and including one in this fledgling tournament was a mis-step.

Third place in the Nations League could have been decided by the losing semi-finalist with the best group-stage record, freeing up those involved for far more productive use of a sunny Portuguese afternoon in early June.