Euro 2020 qualifiers: Resurgent Dutch on cusp of return to big time

Ronald Koeman's Dutch side needs just a draw against Northern Ireland on Saturday to guarantee a spot at the UEFA Euro 2020.

Head coach Ronald Koeman has revitalised the Netherlands by keeping faith in young players, who have put their country back on the map.   -  Getty Images

A thrilling crop of young players has Euro 2020 in its sights as the Netherlands prepare for a return to the big stage, while Teemu Pukki’s Finland is on the brink of its first ever major tournament.

Ronald Koeman’s side needs just a draw at Northern Ireland on Saturday to guarantee a spot at its first international tournament since coming third at the 2014 World Cup.

The Dutch had been in the doldrums until Koeman's arrival in early-2018, with the once mighty Oranje missing out on the previous European Championship and last year’s World Cup in Russia.

The 56-year-old has revitalised his country’s dormant national team with the help of a crop of young players who are putting a famous footballing nation back on the map.

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Rising stars including Frenkie de Jong, Donny van de Beek and Matthijs de Ligt have joined more experienced campaigners Virgil van Dijk, Georginio Wijnaldum, Daley Blind and Ryan Babel to help their team top Group C ahead of the final two rounds of qualifiers.

The Dutch is level on 15 points with fierce rival Germany but above it on head-to-head record and three ahead of Northern Ireland, which realistically needs a win to remain in the hunt for a spot in the tournament.

A late double from 25-year-old Memphis Depay, a revelation in qualifying with six goals in five appearances, in Rotterdam last month helped sink the brave Northern Irish and means his team only needs to avoid defeat at Windsor Park to join the likes of Italy and Spain.

Germany meanwhile just needs to better Northern Ireland’s result to make sure of its place.

The Finns are also on the verge of making history, with a win over lowly Liechtenstein in Helsinki on Friday enough to see it qualify for its first ever European Championship.

- Pukki leading Finns to Euros -

It lies second in Group J behind already-qualified Italy thanks to a magical run inspired by the incredible form of star man Pukki.

The Norwich City striker has scored seven of his side’s 12 goals in eight games, with his brace in a 3-0 win over Armenia last time out opening a five-point gap between itself and its third-placed opposition.

That win all-but guaranteed it a spot in its first major tournament, and Pukki’s fame in his homeland is such that in September, after a discussion on climate change at the Elysee Palace in Paris, Finnish President Sauli Niinisto handed his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron a Pukki replica shirt.

“There are two games left and it’s in their own hands,” said Finland coach Markku Kanerva.

France is among several big hitters also a hair’s breadth away from the main tournament. It might even qualify before taking the field against Moldova at the Stade de France on Thursday.

Didier Deschamps’ world champion will take its place at the finals should third-placed Iceland not beat Group H leader Turkey, although a win for France over bottom side Moldova would be enough regardless of what happens in Istanbul.

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England can rubber stamp what has long looked to be certain qualification with a draw over winless Montenegro at Wembley, with Gareth Southgate’s side another one pushing young players to the forefront.

Raheem Sterling will not play following a brief spat with Joe Gomez in the wake of Liverpool’s 3-1 win over Manchester City, although Southgate insisted a line had been drawn under the incident.

“I love all of my players,” Southgate said.

“We are like a family and all families have disagreements.”

Reigning European champion Portugal meanwhile will have the chance to defend its title with a win over Lithuania, which has collected just a point from seven Group B games, if Serbia fails to beat Luxembourg.

The Portuguese is a point ahead of the Serbs as coach Fernando Santos recalls Lokomotiv Moscow forward Eder, whose goal won Euro 2016, with teenage star Joao Felix sidelined.

It is also without Everton midfielder Andre Gomes after he suffered a horrific leg injury against Tottenham Hotspur earlier in the month.

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