Winners and losers from the September international break

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The September international break is traditionally scorned by fans as the time of year when the early momentum of the club season is stymied for a couple of weeks. This year’s introduction of the Nations League scheme has, at least, added a new layer of intrigue.

Here, we look at some players and countries who enjoyed their autumnal soiree, and others who didn’t.

Winner – Olivier Giroud

Though Giroud’s link-up play from the front line played an important role in France’s World Cup triumph, the headline read that the 31-year-old hadn’t found the net for club or country since May. The Chelsea striker finally ended the longest drought of his international career with an excellent, instinctive 75th-minute winner against the Netherlands in Paris to kick-start France’s Nations League campaign. It was his 32nd goal for France, putting him ahead of the iconic Zinedine Zidane on the all-time scoring charts. Only Thierry Henry, Michel Platini, and David Trezeguet have scored more for Les Bleus.

“We cannot ask him to do what other attackers do, but he is very important to the team,” Didier Deschamps said after the game. “It is when he is not there that we realize his value.”

Losers – Roberto Mancini, Mario Balotelli, and all of Italy

From a first missed World Cup in 60 years to a lowest-ever FIFA ranking to … relegation? Italy’s plight shows no signs of stopping and its Nations League campaign is already on the rocks after successive games yielded just a single point and little reason for optimism. In the Poland draw, Mancini picked Balotelli to start up front but the Nice striker was ineffectual, to say the least – hauled off after an hour, he was subsequently criticized for both his performance and his weight, and was dropped for the following defeat to a Cristiano Ronaldo-less Portugal.

The Nations League seemed to offer the Azzurri a chance for redemption. Instead, they are the only team in League A, Group 3 to have played more than one match but are already bottom of the table. How much lower can the four-time world champions sink? Stay tuned.

Winners – Afterthought nations

One selling point of the UEFA Nations League format is that traditional underdogs are pitted against one another, thus increasing the opportunity for fans to celebrate elusive victories. In League D, the likes of Kosovo, Liechtenstein, and the Faroe Islands have recorded wins from their first slate of even-keeled fixtures, proving there can be new life. Indeed, Luxembourg continued a recent upturn in results by recording its biggest-ever home win, a 4-0 thrashing of Moldova, followed by a 3-0 victory at San Marino. The perennial also-ran has now won three games in succession for the first time since World War Two.

Meanwhile, in Africa Cup of Nations qualifying, there was a spate of Davids standing up to their comparative Goliaths. Among the most noteworthy results were a 2-2 draw for Madagascar against World Cup heartthrob Senegal, a win for Kenya over Ghana, and ties for Comoros and Libya against Cameroon and South Africa, respectively. An individual winner was Stoke City striker Saido Berahino, who scored on his Burundi debut for his second strike in 11 days after ending a remarkable 913-day goal drought.

Loser – Benjamin Pavard’s neck

Pavard was a breakout star for France at the World Cup, excelling at right-back and winning the Goal of the Tournament award. At the age of 22, he is also already accumulating battle scars. A challenge with Germany’s Antonio Rudiger in Thursday’s goalless draw left the Stuttgart defender looking like he had been clawed by something from “Jurassic Park” after his opponent landed studs-first on his neck. Not to be dissuaded, Pavard completed the full 90 minutes. Hard as nails, and gracious to boot: “It hurts a lot, but I don’t think (Rudiger) did it on purpose,” he said after the incident.

Winner – Saul Niguez

Luis Enrique is looking to put his own stamp on the Spain national setup after the on-field disappointment and off-field mess surrounding the team this summer. So far, he’s doing that in style with back-to-back wins, including a 6-0 humbling of World Cup finalist Croatia. Benefitting from the early days of Enrique’s regime are the likes of Atletico Madrid midfielder Saul, who was selected for the World Cup but not given a single minute of action as La Roja crashed out at the last-16 stage. Hindsight is 20/20, but that increasingly seems an inexplicable decision. The 23-year-old has been crucial for Enrique’s side so far in the Nations League campaign – his contributions highlighted by a crisp equalizer in the eventual 2-1 win over England and a thumping header to open the scoring against Croatia three days later.

Loser – Mexico

There was no competitive action for Mexico this week, but that doesn’t lessen the negativity currently surrounding El Tri. Without a full-time head coach after Juan Carlos Osorio’s resignation in July, the high of the 1-0 World Cup group-stage win over Germany is long forgotten. After a 4-1 thrashing by Uruguay, Tuesday’s 1-0 defeat to archrival United States was Mexico’s first reverse against its old enemy in three years and means the nation has now lost four games in succession for the first time in 17 years. With interim boss Ricardo Ferretti unable to guarantee his future – “We all know the situation, hopefully, there is a decision soon one way or the other. The cards have been laid on the table,” he said after the game – things look bleak south of the border.

Honorable/dishonorable mention

Winners – New York Red Bulls prodigy Tyler Adams scored his first goal for the U.S. and Romelu Lukaku returned to the Belgium scoresheet by netting three times in two games.

Losers – Croatia looked an utterly spent force in its demolition by Spain, while everyone’s favorite “alternative” nation, Iceland, was hit for six by Switzerland before losing 3-0 to Lukaku’s men.