Portugal v Netherlands: Koeman's Dutch blazing towards bright future

After the humiliation of missing Euro 2016 and the 2018 World Cup, the Netherlands have stormed back to football's top table.

Netherlands defender Matthijs de Ligt   -  Getty Images

What should have been a routine piece of play and the familiar sight of Matthijs de Ligt launching another Netherlands attack collapsed swiftly into a surprising farce.

The commanding Ajax centre-back let a pass from Marten de Roon slide under his foot and, in trying to atone for the mistake he clumsily fouled Marcus Rashford. The Manchester United forward gave England a 1-0 lead in the Nations League Finals semifinal from the penalty spot.

The fact the mistake jarred so much, that it felt so shocking to see De Ligt err in such a manner, actually underlined how swiftly the teenage defender and his country have developed from a galling nadir.

On his international debut against Bulgaria in March 2017, a 17-year-old De Ligt was thrown into a high-stakes World Cup qualifier and floundered. A 2-0 defeat meant the Dutch would miss out on their second consecutive major tournament. Head coach Danny Blind paid with his job.

Now 19, but playing with composure and maturity beyond his years, the youngster simply got back to work in a gutsy display in Guimaraes – heading the equaliser and helping Ronald Koeman's side to a 3-1 win as defensive mistakes in extra time became an exclusively English preserve.

READ: Cristiano Ronaldo hoping to add Nations League success to Euro 2016 triumph

"For a 19-year-old he's mentally so strong and I think you could see that straight away," said fellow defender Nathan Ake, who watched events unfold from the bench at Estadio D. Afonso Henriques.

"The first action after [Rashford's goal] he dribbles with the ball again, no problem. I think everyone was happy that he scored."

De Ligt and Barcelona-bound midfielder Frenkie de Jong were the pillars of Ajax's stunning run to the Champions League semifinals and they look set to keep their national team in good health for a generation.

Beating World Cup semifinalists England to book a place in the inaugural Nations League showpiece against host Portugal on Sunday follows convincing victories over France and Germany – the reigning world champions and the team they succeeded – during the group stages.

If the descent from coming third at the 2014 World Cup was worryingly rapid for the Netherlands, the subsequent rise has come at a similarly steep gradient, with an instantly recognisable and pleasing style of play working its way back towards the top of the global game.

"We try that," said midfielder Donny van de Beek in Guimaraes when reflecting on whether performances under Koeman hark back the classically Dutch school of Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff.

"We try always to play football. Sometimes it's not always possible. You also have to fight."

That balance was skewed too far towards the "fight" side of the equation under Bert van Marwijk and Louis van Gaal, whose efficient sides at the 2010 and 2014 World Cup were never likely to be darlings of the neutrals in the way Koeman's might become.

READ: England errors hand Oranje Nations League final spot

The coach himself has enjoyed a remarkable resurgence in his reputation and was recently linked to the hotseat at former club Barcelona – a situation laughably implausible when his Everton reign staggered towards an unedifying conclusion in 2017.

Koeman and Netherlands seemingly found one another at their lowest ebbs and now the sky is the limit.

"I think we're progressing really well. There are young players mixed with experienced players," Ake said.

"The coach is very good, very strict. We know what we're doing at the moment and which direction we're going to go.

"Everything is quite clear. What we have to do now is keep going."

Portugal and the mercurial Cristiano Ronaldo will provide a stern test of Netherlands' ambitions and enter the final as favourites. Then again, France, Germany and any of Ajax's Champions League knockout opponents will tell you this crop of Dutch players delight in overturning the odds.