Richard Sutcliffe: UEFA's Nations League has given new meaning to international duels

IN recent years, the top flight of cricket's County Championship has held the mantle of sport's most unforgiving league competition.

England manager Gareth Southgate pleads, without result, for Danny Welbecks late disallowed goal to stand.

With a quarter of the teams competing in Division One each summer destined to be relegated the final few weeks inevitably bring a scramble for safety every bit as desperate as the one for the lifeboats after the captain has ordered, ‘Abandon ship!’

Now, however, there is a new contender for sheer sporting brutality and it goes by the name of the UEFA Nations League.

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Just 90 minutes into the new competition and England are already deep in the relegation mire.

Defeat to Spain means the Three Lions are bottom of League A Group Four and if that is still the case come November 18 demotion to the second tier of the Nations League will follow.

Few would bet against such a fate for a side who must negotiate not only a daunting return clash with Spain in Seville, but also a double-header against Croatia, who just a couple of months ago so ruthlessly dashed England’s hopes of their second World Cup final appearance.

Like that semi-final loss in Russia, Gareth Southgate’s side took the lead at Wembley on Saturday night.

But, just like that July night in the Luzhniki Stadium when Luka Modric and company broke English hearts, there could be few complaints at how a slicker outfit had hit back to claim victory in this first competitive meeting between these two old foes since Euro ‘96.

Sure, referee Danny Makkelie incurred the wrath of every Englishman, woman and child still inside Wembley by ruling out Danny Welbeck’s late, late ‘goal’ for a foul on David De Gea.

Harry Kane went so far as to accuse the Dutch official of “bottling it” in the immediate aftermath of England’s first competitive home defeat since Croatia won 3-2 in the Wembley rain almost 11 years – and 24 games – ago.

He may have had a point. But, even allowing for this late drama, few in the 81,392 crowd could deny a much more vibrant visiting side the three points.

Along with Spain the big winners on the night were UEFA. Having brought in the Nations League to introduce a more competitive element to international football, the governing body’s leap into the unknown was rewarded with a hugely entertaining contest.

With points at stake there was an edge to proceedings that kept the crowd interested. Had this been a friendly the final half-hour would have brought the usual interminable substitutions, a game played at almost walking pace and Mexican waves rolling round the stadium.

Instead we had a genuine contest that brought a sustained level of intensity that is rarely seen at Wembley when England are playing, and the fans responded accordingly.

There were certainly far more seats occupied when the night’s big talking point came along than would usually have been the case at a stadium where supporters make an early dash for the exits to beat the queues at Wembley Park tube station.

Perhaps the biggest plus, however, from not only this clash but also how the other Nations League opening round of fixtures have panned out is that the entertainment on offer has been way above that usually seen in qualifiers at this time of year.

Most of those, and in particular the ones pitting ill-matched opposition against each other, have been boringly predictable and UEFA were right in believing something had to be done.

These are very early days and there can be no doubting that this format lends proceedings a dastardly cut-throat air rarely seen in sport. But the signs are positive that the Nations League can be the breath of fresh air for which the game at this level has been crying out.

“I knew this three-month period would be an exceptional challenge,” said Southgate, whose side travel to Croatia next. “But it will tell us a lot about exactly where we stand and I think that is good for us.

“If we were just playing qualifiers now against a lower standard opposition on the back of how the summer went we might have a perception of where we are which is false. I think after the next few months we will be very clear.”