The Netherlands stumble into the final of the UEFA National League after beating England in the semi-finals.
When it comes to the baseball bat, splintering bone feeling of missing out on the cigars at major finals, the English and the Dutch share a deep sense of empathy.
When both of these great footballing nations met in the Semi-Final of the UEFA Nations Cup, the bookies made the English the favourites, and that was the right call.
After coming third in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, the Dutch failed to qualify for back-to-back major finals in France (Euro 2016) and Russia (World Cup 2018), whereas England exited at the Semi-Final stage of the 2018 World Cup with Gareth Southgate and Harry Kane looking like a wedding cake couple.
Ronald Koeman took the Dutch hot seat in February and immediately put an iron fist through the hierarchy. After the last of the fragile glass crashed to the ground, a few bottles of bubbly, a few corks started popping. The Dutch fans began to see stamina and sustenance to match the skill that seems to be interwoven into Dutch players’ DNA as it frothed to the surface, and a berth in the UEFA Nations Cup Semi-Final was secured.
The biggest compliment that the UEFA Nations Cup has received is the seriousness the managers and players had shown it compared to friendlies – until Thursday night when Gareth Southgate refused to include Champions League finalists into his starting lineup. Koeman, on the other hand, added both Georginio Wijnaldum and Virgil van Dijk, and the difference told.
England allowed the Netherlands to dominate possession in the first half as Declan Rice and Fabian Delph failed to offer a presence worth passing to in the middle of the park, both playing ‘Michael Carrick pass the ball backwards’ football, much to the annoyance of the vast numbers of England fans in the stadium.
Then, against the run of play, England won a penalty when Matthijs de Ligt upended Marcus Rashford in the box. Rashford picked himself up to score his fourth goal in his last six England starts, and the men in white went into the half-time break with an undeserved lead.
“Don’t ask me to explain the mystery of momentum,” said Gary Neville as England began the second half sinking deeper and deeper towards Jordan Pickford.
The ‘sink’ continued until the 73rd minute when De Ligt made up for his first-half mistake, losing John Stones at a corner to head home the equaliser from close range.
England was meatier when Jordan Henderson came off the bench, and they nearly pinched it when Jesse Lingard scored in the 83rd minute only for VAR to rule the goal offside, sending the pair into extra time – cue England’s acts of spontaneous human combustion with Stones playing the central role.
The Man City central defender’s first mistake came when he tried a Cruyff turn on the edge of the penalty area. Memphis Depay stole it and shot, Pickford saved brilliantly, but the ball rebounded to Quincy Promes who squeezed the ball into the net off Kyle Walker’s knees to give the Dutch the lead.
Then Stones was at it again, this time giving Ross Barkley a hospital pass in the England box. The Everton forward passed straight to Depay who set up Promes to score from close range.
It’s a defeat that will hurt England, coming on the back of a World Cup Semi-Final defeat to Croatia where they also threw away a one-nil lead. The difference between this game and that, other than the stakes, is that England was utterly dominant against Croatia in the first half, and was nothing of the sort at any time during this match.
The Dutch deservedly go through to face Portugal in Sunday night’s final. England faces Switzerland in the Third-Place Play-Off, also on Sunday, and few will give two monkeys about the result, similar to those aged friendly that this competition killed.