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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Sophie Downey

Women’s Nations League: what’s at stake in the final group games?

(Clockwise from top left) France's Kadidiatou Diani; Daniëlle van de Donk and Lieke Martens of the Netherlands; Denmark's Pernille Harder, who is recovering from a knee injury; England’s Mary Earps and Haley Bugeja of Malta
(Clockwise from top left) France's Kadidiatou Diani; Daniëlle van de Donk and Lieke Martens of the Netherlands; Denmark's Pernille Harder, who is recovering from a knee injury; England’s Mary Earps and Haley Bugeja of Malta. Composite: Getty Images

The final group stage window of the inaugural Women’s Nations League is fast approaching with countries jostling for promotion and position. While many in League A have the semi-finals in sight, others will be focused on securing a good spot for the Euro 2025 qualification phase. Moving the Goalposts broke down the format in September and the majority of placings remain to be decided.

None of the semi-finalists have been confirmed, with all top positions in League A still up for grabs. That means the European teams who will feature in next summer’s Olympics remain unknown. The eventual finalists will qualify for the Paris Games – if France make it, a spot goes to the third-place team. For Team GB to qualify, England count as the nominated side.

One eye will also be on the relegation battles. Who will avoid the drop? Who will be forced into a playoff? And who will have some unexpected time off in the February international break?

League A

England sit in a precarious position in Group 1 having experienced a mixed campaign. The World Cup final hangover has been evident as they suffered two defeats in four matches, conceding late away against the Netherlands and Belgium.

It leaves qualification for Paris 2024 out of their hands and they need to be wary of being drawn into a relegation battle. Wembley and the return of Beth Mead against the Netherlands on Friday will serve as a boost for Sarina Wiegman’s side, although the injury-enforced absence of the captain, Millie Bright, is a blow.

Even if they beat the Netherlands and then Scotland away in this window, they will need an emboldened Belgium to drop points in their final two games. Ives Serneels’ side have caught the eye and two victories would guarantee a semi-final place. The Netherlands are still well placed to qualify, sitting top, and Scotland must win twice to avoid automatic relegation. Going down would serve as a heavy blow to their hopes of qualifying for Euro 2025.

Belgium’s Tina De Caigny advances on the England defence.
Belgium’s Tina De Caigny advances on the England defence during a 1-0 win for Sarina Wiegman’s side in Leicester last month. Photograph: NurPhoto/Getty Images

France have led the way in Group 2 and need a point to progress at home to Austria. With Irene Fuhrmann’s Austria almost safe in second spot, all eyes will be on Friday’s encounter between Portugal and Norway. They meet in Oslo with Portugal knowing a win would enable them to avoid automatic relegation.

Germany and Denmark face each other in Rostock on Friday in the battle for qualification from Group 3. Denmark won the reverse encounter 2-0 but are without their talismanic leader Pernille Harder. Gemma Grainger’s Wales team have had a miserable group campaign, creating little and leaking goals. They host Iceland then Germany, and must avoid defeat against Iceland to stand a chance of escaping an automatic drop into League B.

The World Cup winners, Spain, have put their off-field troubles behind them in Group 4 and are one win away from progression. Sweden, the Tokyo 2020 silver medallists, are still in the race but their chances are slim. Switzerland, meanwhile, are struggling. The Euro 2025 hosts do not need to worry about European qualification but they are on a dreadful run of form. Barring a swift change of fortunes, they will be relegated before facing Italy, the only other team who could go down automatically, in their final game.

League B

Finishing top in League B will bring teams a place in the top league for Euro 2025 qualification, increasing their chances of reaching that tournament automatically. So far, only the Republic of Ireland have confirmed their spot with two games to spare. Eileen Gleeson’s side have enjoyed an eye-catching campaign with four wins from four in Group 1, giving the interim manager an opportunity to try new faces in this window.

Ireland’s Katie McCabe, Eileen Gleeson and Denise O’Sullivan celebrate after victory in Albania in October.
Ireland’s Katie McCabe, Eileen Gleeson and Denise O’Sullivan celebrate after victory in Albania in October. Photograph: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile/Getty Images

Elsewhere, a win for Finland against Romania would guarantee top spot in Group 2, Poland and Serbia are in contention in Group 3, and Bosnia-Herzegovina lead the Czech Republic by a point in Group 4.

The runners-up will enter playoffs against the third-placed finishers in League A, with the winners taking a top-tier spot for the European qualification round. Tanya Oxtoby’s Northern Ireland endured a frustrating October, coming away with a loss and a draw from their double header against Hungary. Realistically, they are battling with the Hungarians for second in Group 1. Slovakia lead the way for second in Group 2 and across Groups 3 and 4 Ukraine, Greece, Slovenia and Belarus all need results elsewhere to go in their favour to keep their playoff hopes alive.

League C

Turkey have secured promotion in Group 2 and Malta will move up to League B after a standout campaign in Group 1 if they beat Moldova. The Malta and Inter striker, Haley Bugeja, is the Nations League top-scorer with eight. Azerbaijan and Kosovo head up Group 3 and 5 respectively while Israel and Estonia are tied on points at the top of Group 4.

Only the three best runners-up head into the playoffs, meaning competition is fierce as the final two games approach.

Recommended listening

The Women’s Football Weekly podcast reflects on the WSL and FA Cup latest, and looks ahead to the international break.

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