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    • Two nations with promising young players meet in Portugal on Thursday, with a place in the final of the first ever UEFA Nations League campaign on offer.  It is a great chance for them to get silverware and kick on ahead of next summer's Euro 2020 tournament. Everything is positive around England at the minute, with the feel-good factor continuing from last summer's World Cup run, where they finished fourth in Russia. Gareth Southgate has continued the impressive work, since giving opportunities to more talented youngsters. They are now on a seven-match undefeated run, beating the likes of Croatia and Spain to qualify for the last four of the Nations League, while hitting five without reply against the Czech Republic in Euro 2020 qualifying. With Champions League winners Jordan Henderson, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joe Gomez in their ranks, and the emergence of the likes of Jadon Sancho, Callum Hudson-Odoi (missing here through injury) and Declan Rice, plus Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane having impressive seasons again, the future is bright. Meanwhile, after missing out on the World Cup last year, Holland are in a rebuilding phase under Ronald Koeman. They have lost just two of their last eight and beat Germany as well as world champions France en route to the Nations League semi-finals. They also have a lot to be optimistic about, with Ajax's European exploits showing the young Dutch talent coming through. Frenkie De Jong, 22, is heading to Barcelona this summer for an initial £65m while defender Matthijs de Ligt is attracting interest from Europe's biggest clubs with Juventus reportedly tabling a £75m bid. De Ligt, at just 19 years of age, is already Ajax's captain and a partnership with Van Dijk at the back could make the Netherlands extremely tough to beat in the coming years. They cannot do it on their own though and that showed in their 3-2 Euro 2020 qualifying defeat to Germany in March. Ajax captain Matthijs de Ligt is on the radar of Europe's biggest clubs. England and Netherlands have similarities, says Declan Rice ahead of UEFA Nations League meeting If England are to win, you would think at least two goals are required and they are a tempting 11/8 to score two on the night, but the match does not reek of goals due to the scheduling of the tournament. We saw how sluggish both Tottenham and Liverpool players looked in the Champions League final on Saturday after three weeks without competitive action. Both sides having players feature last week should help a little with sharpness, should they opt to start them. This fixture coming so soon after the Champions League, though, means these nations have not been able to have a warm-up game in the run-up to what should be a big clash and it is a tough ask to chuck them into the semi-finals nearly a month after the conclusion of the campaign. Backing England to edge it with under 3.5 total goals at a shade over 2/1 is a preference with the expected rustiness in mind. They are both promising young sides, but the Three Lions are further down the line in their development and they are fancied to edge it.
    • The first of the UEFA Nations League semi-finals takes place in Porto, where Portugal take on outsiders Switzerland. The current European champions are favourites with some bookmakers to win the tournament outright, but there is some value in backing their opponents to reach the final. The hosts have been held back by draws in recent games. No defeat in four looks good on the records, but the fact all have ended level potentially shows the issue they have. On the contrary, Switzerland saw two of their four group games end with them scoring five or more goals. The most eye-catching result being that convincing 5-2 hammering of World Cup semi-finalists Belgium, a game where they found themselves 2-0 down. Portugal may have the name in Cristiano Ronaldo, but Switzerland have shown how they have consistency across the squad. All of their players ply their trade in Europe's top divisions, with many seeing European qualification with their teams. Their recent showings have highlighted why, for me, the 5/2 price on qualification to the final seems a little too high. There's no doubting that Portugal are a good outfit, but Switzerland have earned their right to compete on this stage. The fact that the Swiss had to battle Belgium, and managed to edge past them to the finals on goal difference, and that can only put them in a good place here. It has to be said too that, on the whole, Switzerland had a harder group than Portugal and still managed to pick up a point more. The Portuguese faced Italy and Poland, which is actually easier than what it may appear on the surface. Italy are still in the process of a rebuild and, while they have young talent coming through, they aren't quite at the level required just yet. As for Poland, their two points in the Nations League and performance at the recent World Cup highlights their many problems. For Switzerland, they managed to get the better of Belgium in spectacular fashion. Alongside that, the eight goals scored against two games in Iceland should be applauded regardless. In League A, with the 12 best international teams in Europe competing against each other, Switzerland finished as top scorers by some distance. Their 14 goals in four games made them just one of two teams to hit double figures, Spain's 12 goals saw them come closest. Leading the line during that campaign was Haris Seferovic, who scored five of those 14 goals. The Benfica man has enjoyed a very positive season for both club and country and will aim to carry that form into the finals. It's hardly a surprise to see Southampton linked with a move this summer. Seferovic netted 23 goals in 29 Liga NOS games, that tally rising to 27 if you include other competitions. A groin injury prevented him from taking part in European qualifiers in March, but prior to that he netted four goals in two competitive games for Switzerland, including a hat-trick in the win against Belgium. The big question surrounds whether he will develop that one-season wonder reputation following a prolific season. Time will tell on that front, but what we can see is that he is a striker who is currently playing with confidence and form and that can only put him in the right position for the unfancied side. A price of 10/3 looks more than appealing for him to continue his run against Portugal on Wednesday. 7/4 is also available for two or more shots on target in 90 minutes, but it's worth taking that 10/3 as he has proved to be a striker who clearly knows where the net is at all levels. Score prediction: Portugal 1-2 Switzerland
    • As if Liverpool beating Barcelona wasn’t dramatic enough, Spurs’ recovery against Ajax was perhaps more dramatic. Lucas Moura dragged his side off the canvas and into the final – after Spurs somehow qualified from their own devilishly tough group, despite earning just one point from their first three matches. However, as Real Madrid showed last season, you can’t win the Champions League without riding your luck a little along the way. So, looking at the betting, my first tip is one I’m very confident about: both teams to score. Both sides have found the net in seven of Spurs and Liverpool’s last eight meetings, and it’s clear they know an awful lot about each other; I can’t imagine either manager will adopt an overly-cautious, feel-each-other-out approach once on Saturday. While the contests are always hotly-contested, Liverpool do have the edge over Spurs in recent years. The Londoners have only beaten Liverpool once in their last 14 matches against them, although with four of the last nine ending in draws, you’d be a fool to write this one off as a foregone conclusion. Jurgen Klopp’s bizarrely terrible record in finals is also an interesting curveball; the German has lost his last six major finals, and while it shouldn’t affect proceedings, it’s something which might start eating away at him should things turn pear-shaped. Liverpool’s clean bill of health—with the likely exception of Naby Kieta—is a nice boost for Klopp, although Harry Kane’s imminent return to action (and yes, one way or another, Kane will feature on Saturday) will be music to Spurs fans’ ears. This could well be a classic European final. Despite Liverpool’s recent history against Spurs, and their clear superiority in the Premier league this season, the gulf between the two sides isn’t considerable. It’s the most exciting Champions League final in many years. Whatever happens, I expect both teams to score, and I’m putting 2pts into this tip. We can debate all we like about who will be the hero on Saturday: will Kane inspire Spurs to glory? Can Mo Salah end Klopp’s trophy drought? Is Hugh Lloris going to be a hero or villain? The one thing I can see having a huge impact on the game is VAR. The dreaded VAR. The three worst letters in football. VAR’s contribution to this season’s Champions League has, shall we say, been controversial – and that’s an understatement. Video technology continues to dig its talons into the game we love (can you tell what side of the VAR debate I’m on?), and it seems written in the stars it’ll play a part in Saturday’s final. There was VAR-assorted ridiculousness in the World Cup Final, and I can’t shirk this nagging feeling that technology will leave a bitter taste in everybody’s mouth. For this technological skulduggery to result in Damir Skomina pointing to the penalty spot, you’ll get odds of 21/10. I hope this season’s Champions League isn’t settled by a super-slo-mo replay of the ball brushing Jan Vertonghen’s index finger after it was blasted at him from a yard away – but unfortunately, it might.   For my value pick, I’ve backed Liverpool to win 2-1 after 90 minutes, priced at 8/1. A draw is certainly on the table, as is a Spurs win, but Liverpool are just so strong, and a closely-fought Reds victory is my most likely outcome – particularly with BTTS a strong prospect. Liverpool’s last two meetings with Spurs have ended in 2-1 victories, and side as good as this simply can’t go trophyless…can they? This is where all the botched finals are remedied by Klopp. Spurs are worthy finalists, and I’m not ruling them out totally, but for me, Liverpool’s name is on this year’s Champions League trophy.
    • The unpredictability of the Championship, particularly the play-offs, is very much part of the allure – you might get served up some dross, you might witness something truly special. That’s why it’s such a fantastic league. One thing’s for sure though: if this season’s play-off final is even half as exciting as the two semi-finals, we’re in for a real treat. Leeds and West Brom have both fallen in spectacular style, leaving Aston Villa—in this position for the second season in-a-row—and Derby to fight for promotion. What better way to wash away the memory of that horrendous FA Cup final than a proper, blood-and-thunder affair between two sides who have endured their fair share of agony over the past decade or so? As I mentioned, Villa succumbed to Fulham in last season’s play-off final, and generally speaking, this galvanises sides should they return to Wembley the following season – much like Crystal Palace in 1997 or West Ham in 2005. The last team to lose consecutive play-off finals in the second-tier was Leicester City in 1993; Dean Smith will be rather keen to avoid adding his side to his list. Derby’s last play-off outing at Wembley was in 2014 against QPR where Bobby Zamora’s late winner—which was rather gift-wrapped by Richard Keogh—broke the Rams’ hearts. There’s no doubt Villa have had the edge over Derby this season. 4-0 and 3-0 victories home and away respectively is part of the reason why Villa are favourites on Monday, but Derby’s sensational comeback at Elland Road against Leeds suggests Frank Lampard’s young, hungry side aren’t fazed by anything – no mountain is too high. This said, I’m still backing Villa to lift the trophy. You felt there could be serious long-term ramifications for them after last season’s final defeat, but Smith has ensured they come into this a much better side than last year. Derby shouldn’t ever be counted out, especially in a one-off game like this, but Villa just look the part: from Tyrone Mings and Axel Tuanzebe at the back to Tammy Abraham up top. They’re just a brilliant side. I can’t see them losing yet again, which is why they are my pick to secure promotion. Aston Villa To Lift The Trophy 2pts 4/7 One huge part of Villa’s success this season has been Tammy Abraham. The 21-year-old has scored a whopping 26 goals this season—including strikes in both of Villa’s matches against Derby—and you have to feel he’s the one stand-out marksman amongst both squads. Conor Hourihane is another player who I can see scoring, but when push comes to shove, Tammy is the man who generally delivers, which is why I'm backing him to score at any time.  Tammy Abraham Anytime Goalscorer 1pt 7/5 A hugely contributory factor to the play-off drama this season was ill-discipline. Across the four matches, THIRTY THREE yellow cards and four red cards were issued. Those are staggeringly high numbers. I don’t expect Monday’s match to be quite as feisty, but nine bookings in the couple of games between these two earlier in the season suggests there is plenty of needle. 50+ booking points is certainly obtainable with this one. And I like most neutrals, I’m sure hope things properly kick off once again.
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