England Europe Football Opinion Switzerland Three Lions UEFA Nations League

Switzerland 0-0 England (5-6 PENS); Pickford penalty heroics secure the Three Lions the effectively meaningless Nations League third place

It took some penalty shootout heroics from England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, scoring one spot kick before then saving another, to earn the Three Lions victory in the UEFA Nations League third-place playoff.

In truth, it was an accomplishment – and a match in general – that few cared about, myself included in that crowd.

It’s something I’ve never understood the desire for in international football – the meaningless third-place playoff. Teams are already spent, they’ve already endured the ignominy of being knocked out of the respective tournament, any yet are somehow expected to rally back around to care for a match that means so incredibly little to anyone.

I understand the format’s existence in just one footballing competition – the Olympic Games. That is because the third-place playoff takes the form of a bronze medal match. This is important for countries as the medals table is ultimately how nations are separated and ranked on performance, and therefore competing over the bronze can matter to teams (even though a number of sports with knockout tournaments actually just share the bronze between those knocked out in the semi-finals, and football so easily also could too).

Yet, despite this, FIFA and UEFA both seem to still have a burning love for the third-place match, leading to the drab spectacle that was on display in Portugal early on Sunday afternoon.

That feeling of pointless football was for all to see in Guimaraes, as the England and Switzerland camps lined up ahead of a match few even cared was going on. Just as easily as staging it, both sides could have instead shrugged off their shortcomings in the semi-finals and been on flights back home to enjoy the start of a summer break.

Instead, by decree of the UEFA higher-ups, they were forced to play out a slow, meaningless pre-amble to the actual final – played with all the disinterest and fatigue that you’d have anticipated in a third-place playoff that didn’t need to exist.

The match itself, a real low-key affair, saw England boss the chances, with Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling both hitting the woodwork. Swiss goalkeeper Yann Sommer pulled off a superb save to deny Dele Alli.

Bournemouth’s Callum Wilson thought he’d won the game for England late into the second half when he turned the ball home, only to see his goal chalked off by VAR – with the video assistant referee ruling him to have fouled Manuel Akanji in the build up of the goal.

Ending goalless at the full time whistle, and failing to find any form of breakthrough in extra time, the game dragged its way through to penalties, where Pickford stepped up to perform – much like he did in last summer’s World Cup Round of 16 match against Colombia.

Harry Maguire, Ross Barkley, Jadon Sancho and Sterling all hit the mark for England, before Pickford himself stepped up to score England’s fifth penalty (the fact alone that the goalkeeper was taking traditionally significant, and potentially deciding, penalty number five probably tells all it needs to about the third-place playoff).

At that stage, the scores remained level heading into sudden death. Switzerland had been on target with all five of their strikes so far, seeing Steven Zuber, Granit Xhaka, Akanji, Kevin Mbabu and Fabian Schar all convert from the penalty spot.

Eric Dier then converted England’s sixth spot kick to put the Three Lions in the driving seat.

To respond, up stepped Swiss forward Josip Drmic but the Borussia Monchengladbach man saw his effort saved by Pickford, giving victory and third place in the Nations League to Gareth Southgate’s England.

It remains an utterly meaningless game, and one that everyone could have likely done without playing, but I suppose at least for the annuls of history Southgate’s tenure as England manager has another minor success on its record (even if the final, overall tournament win still eludes him so far).

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