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England's positive vibes pay dividends, Belgium blow big lead, Dutch delight, more

When it comes to England and semifinals, it's a bit like the old London buses cliche: You wait 20 years for one and then two come along at once. OK, so the joke is beyond corny, and yes, a UEFA Nations League semifinal is a wholly different animal. However, there is no denying that the England team are buzzing in a way we have not seen in a long time.

There are plenty of holes you can pick in the 2-1 win over Croatia, which opened the doors of the final four to Gareth Southgate's crew. Until Harry Kane's goal five minutes from time, they were not going to the semifinals; instead, they were being relegated to the second tier.

Croatia were without the injured Mateo Kovacic and Ivan Rakitic, while stalwarts including Mario Mandzukic retired after the World Cup. From about 25 minutes in at Wembley, Sime Vrsaljko was also unavailable; smaller nations cannot easily spot four guys of such caliber to the opposition.

Moreover, for all the talk of a new way of playing, England's equalizer was direct, no-frills fare: A scrambled finish after a long throw-in. And while Southgate's men were better over the course of 90 minutes -- particularly when they raised the tempo -- the way they allowed themselves to fall behind against the run of play must be a concern.

Yet in many ways, none of that matters, because fans and media seem to have more faith in this manager than in any national team coach since Terry Venables.

It has been noted that Southgate is humble and likeable and has built his team to be the same. That part is true, just as it is perhaps also true that, after decades of boom-and-bust cycles -- unwarranted self-delusional overconfidence alternating with exaggerated, unfounded despair -- folks are tired of the same routine.

England's fine 2018 continued when they clinched a UEFA Nations League semifinal place.

They want to have fun, they want to enjoy the ride and they do not expect world domination. That has made Southgate's job easier, as has the fact that investment in youth academies, which began a decade or so ago, is bearing fruit. Being able to call upon three attacking game-changers late in a match like Dele Alli, Jesse Lingard and Jason Sancho, is a luxury not many national team bosses have.

The key is not to get carried away and to remind yourself of what got you to this position.

One more Southgate point: He is so genuine and so likeable that he gets a pass for saying the silliest thing he has said since becoming England manager. Speaking after the match -- and having apparently forgotten the two colossal chances Kane squandered in the first half -- he described the Tottenham striker as "the best goal scorer in the world, frankly."

Suffice to say that, among others, there is a guy in Turin and another in Barcelona who might quibble with that declaration. Since 2014, when he became a regular at Spurs, Kane has scored 145 goals in all competitions. In the same timeframe, Cristiano Ronaldo has scored 207, while Lionel Messi has 212.

Southgate should get the benefit of the doubt. That statement was so out of line with his usual tone -- and smacked of old tabloid England attitudes -- that he must have simply misspoken. Instead, let us celebrate what he is building.

Swiss dominate in Belgium's shocking collapse

Sunday's other top-flight comeback was even more compelling. Switzerland hosted high-flying Belgium needing to win 1-0, 2-1 or by two goals. When they went a goal down inside two minutes and two behind within 20 -- Thorgan Hazard netting twice after defensive errors -- things did not look good for Vladimir Petkovic and Co.

With a little over an hour to go, all Roberto Martinez's crew needed to do was to avoid conceding four goals. Instead, by half-time, the top-ranked team in the world were 3-2 down. At the final whistle, Switzerland had enjoyed one of their greatest nights and triumphed 5-2, powered by a Haris Seferovic hat trick and a scintillating performance from Xherdan Shaqiri.

As for Belgium, you have to ask serious questions. Big teams do not squander such leads but what is most disappointing is the three goals they conceded in the final 20 minutes of the first half. The seeming inability to see the match to the interval and grasp the opportunity to regroup is a serious indictment. At the least, it has to be a learning opportunity.

Portugal continue to get the job done

The current incarnation of Portugal might not win points for style, but they are showing the same toughness and cohesion exhibited when they won Euro 2016. It's the Fernando Santos way, and while they struggled in a 0-0 draw against Italy, the fact is they won the group with one game to spare.

All of a sudden, the possibility of winning another international piece of silverware -- on home soil, no less -- becomes more real. In addition, come final four time, you'd imagine that Ronaldo might be back.

Goals will come for new-look Italy

Roberto Mancini's Italy scored just two goals in four UEFA Nations League games.

Talking of Italy, while the numbers are not good in terms of scoring goals, I don't think fans of the Azzurri should be overly concerned. When you dominate play and create as much as they did against Portugal on Saturday and last month vs. Poland, the goals will come.

It's still weird to see an Italy side play like this, dominating possession with a midfield trio of Jorginho, Marco Verratti and Nicolo Barella, particularly when you are old enough to remember the "defend-and-counter" glory days. However, that is the trend in the modern game.

And while Ciro Immobile (let alone Kevin Lasagna) might not be worth mentioning in the same breath as the great strikers of the past, if he continues getting chances like the ones he missed on Saturday night, he will start to convert.

How good are the Dutch?

Beyond the fact that Netherlands are a whole heck of a lot better than they have been for most of the past four years, it is hard to measure exactly where they stand.

A draw or win in Germany on Monday will clinch a spot in the Nations League semifinals, ahead of the past two World Cup winners. On the other hand, the Dutch side still features Ryan Babel, as well as youngsters -- from Denzel Dumfries and Matthijs de Ligt to Frenkie de Jong and Steven Bergwijn -- who are largely untested beyond the Eredivisie.

De Jong, 21, has just over half a top-flight season under his belt and seems to be a late bloomer by Dutch standards, whereas 19-year-old de Ligt has been hyped from a young age and is growing into his potential. So while you may wonder how good they are now, there is little question they will improve.

In the meantime, Ronald Koeman has a standout defender in Vigil van Dijk and a one-man wrecking crew up front in Memphis Depay, who is in even better form than that which earned him a move to Manchester United in 2015. That is enough to tide things over while the kids develop.

Deschamps to blame for France's flop

As for France, Didier Deschamps had this explanation after his side was beaten 2-0 in Rotterdam on Friday: "They wanted it more; we were resting on our laurels."

Maybe so, but it is an indictment of his coaching ability. The reigning world champions are the deepest team in Europe in terms of talent; nobody should be comfortable, because in most areas there is a hungry understudy gunning for the spot.

Deschamps' selection also raised questions. Other than the fact that they are both tall central midfielders, Steven N'Zonzi and Paul Pogba have nothing in common, so expecting the former to fill in for the latter means you either make adjustments elsewhere or you will look silly. Which is what happened. Equally, sending on Ousmane Dembele and Moussa Sissoko when chasing the game suggests Deschamps has not been paying much attention to their club form.

Worst of all? Les Bleus must turn into Germany fans Monday night if they want to get to Portugal. That ought to be punishment enough.


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