England’s long wait for a first international trophy since 1966 could be just days away at the Nations League finals in Portugal, but Ronald Koeman’s resurgent Netherlands presents a hazardous hurdle for the Three Lions in Thursday’s semifinal in Guimaraes.
A run to the semifinals of last year’s World Cup and memorable victories over Spain and Croatia to make the last four of another tournament within 12 months have raised expectations that Gareth Southgate in coaching the generation to finally end England’s wait for glory.
By contrast, the Dutch have had a lean few years after failing to make it to Russia last year or qualify for Euro 2016. Even though they lost a thrilling opening Euro 2000 qualifier 3-2 to Germany in March there are no fears they will miss out for a third consecutive major tournament.
The side captained by the imperious Virgil van Dijk is also blessed with the core of an Ajax side that was seconds away from facing Van Dijk’s Liverpool in the Champions League final.
Tottenham robbed the Eredivisie of its first Champions League finalist since 1996 with a dramatic late semifinal, second leg winner in Amsterdam as the Premier League dominated European competition this season.
But there is no guarantee English success will carry over to the international stage. Indeed, there were as many Dutchman as English players in Liverpool's starting line-up as it lifted the European Cup on Saturday with Van Dijk and Georginio Wijnaldum.
One of Koeman’s first acts when taking charge of his country last year was to make Van Dijk his skipper having worked with him at Southampton.
“When you look at Virgil now, this is a big, big personality on the pitch. He is a leader,” Koeman told The Guardian .
“That is why I made him captain. I knew him from Southampton.
I thought: “he can do more - he can carry more responsibility. He is strong; he has a great character and enjoys the responsibility.”
Van Dijk’s man-of-the-match display in the Champions League final to go with his Premier League players’ player of the year award has increased his chances of winning the Ballon d’Or.
Lifting the Nations League would only strengthen his case and it is his centre-back partner at international level who may take his tag as the world’s most expensive defender.
Matthijs de Ligt is also a leader at just 19. The towering Ajax captain is wanted by a host of Europe’s top clubs after a stellar season.
“We have the best centre defenders with De Ligt and Virgil,” said Koeman. “That’s great because you build the house, always, from downstairs. You don’t start with the roof.
“That is the target as a manager: goalkeeper, defender. The centre part of the team has to be strong,” he added.
The Netherlands’ spine is further strengthened by another two Ajax products Frenkie de Jong and Donny van de Beek alongside Wijnaldum in midfield.
Barcelona agreed a 75 million euro fee for De Jong to move this summer in January even before Ajax dumped Real Madrid and Juventus out of the Champions League.
Koeman’s men have already shown their capabilities in knocking out world champion France and Germany to make the Nations League last four.
“In the last few years, yes, it is the best generation, but they are just starting,” added Koeman.
“We are on a good way back to where we would like to stay as a country.”
Koeman played when the Netherlands gained its only major tournament win at the European Championships in 1988. While he insisted Nations League success is not on a par with that feat, it would send a strong signal that the Dutch really are back.
“It’s Nations League. It’s not a Euros; it’s not a world championship,” he added. “Winning the Nations League is important, but you cannot compare.”
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