Gatecrashing World Cup party for France will show the Netherlands shouldn't lose all hope

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The Netherlands could do without invitation to this party.

Sunday’s gala Nations League clash will illustrate the divergent paths walked by France and their crestfallen visitors since World Cup 2014.

Resurgent Louis van Gaal then led the Dutch to a shock third-placed finish. A 5-1 mauling of holders Spain that kick-started this startling run gave the future a hue of Brilliant Oranje.

Didier Deschamps’ French squad, in contrast, made little impression in Brazil and were not missed when eliminated by eventual victors Germany in the quarter-finals.

The 21-year-old duo of Real Madrid centre-back Raphael Varane and then Juventus midfielder Paul Pogba seemed far away from the finished article. Head coach Didier Deschamps’ conservative methods caused worries that successes to match those from his playing days would not follow.

Only the most-optimistic members of the Les Bleus faithful and gloomy sections of the Netherlands support could have predicted what happened next.

The summer of 2014 represented the modern zenith for one nation and an invaluable formative experience for the other.

Ticker tape and cheers will greet the home players when they take to the pitch at a grateful Stade de France – the same arena so deflated by final defeat at Euro 2016. This will be a 90-minute celebration of a joyous nation’s triumph at World Cup 2018.

For the Netherlands, one of the sport’s premier nations has not kicked a ball at a tournament since July 2014’s 3-0 mauling of deflated hosts Brazil in the third-place play-off. Ex-Feyenoord and Everton boss Ronald Koeman is the fourth man entrusted since then to resuscitate a national side on life support.

This is a storyline detailed by production lines: one that has continued to churn out elite talent at a precocious rate and another that requires a revitalising result to evidence theirs has not ground to an alarming halt.

France sent out the second-youngest squad this summer in Russia. An estimated collective valuation of €1.2 billion (Dh5bn) was the highest at the event.

FBL-WC-2018-FRA-ARRIVAL

Pogba had become the then most-expensive player in history when returned to Manchester United for £89 million (Dh424m) in August 2016.  Monaco guaranteed a £166m (Dh856.3m) payment from Paris Saint-Germain last February for teenage striker Kylian Mbappe.

Forward Antoine Griezmann had appeared cheap at €100m (Dh425.1m) when Barcelona attempted to pay his release clause from Atletico Madrid.

Only three members of the 23-man squad – Mbappe, Juventus battler Blaise Matuidi and PSG goalkeeper Alphonse Areola – were graduates of the national academy at Clairefontaine. But this body’s philosophy is felt at nearly every French club.

Coaches trained there go back to teams from Lyon to Monaco, Bordeaux to Guingamp, and help transform promising youngsters into elite footballers better than nearly all other countries.

Only two changes were made by Deschamps for the 23-man roster selected to meet the Dutch – both caused by injuries to Tottenham goalkeeper Hugo Lloris and reserve Steve Mandanda of Marseille.

A sweep of the Under-21s shows the system’s efficacy cannot be questioned by Deschamps’ continuity. Lyon midfielders Houssem Aouar and Tanguy Ndombele, plus RB Leipzig’s teenage defender Dayot Upamecano, look poised to come in when needed.

The Dutch matched this reputation for much of the 50 years that followed Johan Cruyff startlingly bringing Rinus Michels’ reworked theory of ‘Total Voetbal’ to life at Ajax.

It’s continued prominence appeared apparent when the nation were beaten in World Cup 2010’s final and made the semis four years later.

Vaunted attackers Wesley Sneijder, Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben were the fulcrums of this generation.

A once-bountiful talent pool critically went dry as they aged.

Churning Netherlands managers has not yet cured systemic issues.

Previous great hopes like Royston Drenthe and Ibrahim Afellay fell by the wayside. Besiktas forward Ryan Babel’s presence in Koeman’s selection causes alarm.

Forward Memphis Depay is rebuilding his career at Lyon after flopping at Manchester United. Goalkeeper Jasper Cillesen warms the bench at Barcelona and crippling knee injuries see midfielder Kevin Strootman at Marseille rather than a true giant.

From this nadir, however, shoots of recovery can be found.

The Ajax trio of 19-year-old centre-back Matthijs de Ligt and 21-year-old midfielders Frenkie de Jong and Donny van de Beek are coveted across Europe.

Georginio Wijnaldum has started 2018/19 in superb form for Liverpool – a club which paid a world-record £75m (Dh369.8m) fee for peerless centre-back Virgil van Dijk.

These players possess the ability to inspire a gatecrashing of France’s festivities. If they do, glory could lie ahead.

The Netherlands last failed to make successive tournaments in 1986. They, of course, then did rather well at Euro 1988…

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Denmark goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel reveals 'difficult week' ahead of Wales clash

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Kasper Schmeichel has owned up to a “difficult week” for Danish football that almost saw Denmark field a team of part-time players against Wales in the UEFA Nations League.

Denmark fielded lower league and futsal players in the 3-0 friendly defeat to Slovakia on Wednesday following a dispute over the players’ commercial rights.

The row was eventually settled on Thursday, allowing Denmark to recall the likes of Leicester goalkeeper Schmeichel and Tottenham midfielder Christian Eriksen for Sunday’s game against Wales in Aarhus.

“I think for us it’s about winning the game and playing well,” Schmeichel said at Denmark’s pre-match press conference.

“I am sure everyone will get behind us. It’s been a difficult week, but that’s life.

“It’s just about getting on with it now and we will be ready.”

The Danish trio presented at the pre-match press conference – manager Age Hareide, captain Simon Kjaer and Schmeichel – were reluctant to talk about the affair which had turned Denmark into the laughing stock of international football.

But Hareide said the episode meant his squad, which reached the last 16 of the World Cup in Russia and are ranked ninth by FIFA, had been limited to only two training sessions before the Wales game.

“It is a little less than we normally have, but it’s OK,” Hareide said.

“There are players here who have been here for two years, so I am not too worried about that.

“All the players are fit and experienced. There are no worries about that. No excuses.”

Wales have had their own problems before the game after thrashing the Republic of Ireland 4-1 in their Nations League opener.

Ryan Giggs’ squad were delayed from leaving Cardiff Airport because of a technical fault with their plane and were not due to arrive in Aarhus until the early hours of Sunday morning.

But Schmeichel admits he has been impressed by Wales under new boss Giggs, a former Manchester United team-mate of his father Peter.

“Look at the last game and you can see the flair and spark that they play with,” he said.

“It’s very similar to the DNA he inherited at Manchester United and it will be very interesting to see what he can bring.

“He’s got a very talented squad with Wales. It is something that Gary Speed started, Chris Coleman worked really well, and now Ryan is putting his own stamp on it.

“Gareth Bale is obviously a world class player, but it would be disrespectful to focus on just him because Wales is full of very good players.”

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Gareth Southgate wants England to keep on developing as a team

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Confident: Gareth Southgate

Gareth Southgate is proud of England’s progress but now the focus returns to development as his World Cup heroes look to build on their Russian adventure.

Spain kick off the next cycle in Saturday’s UEFA Nations League opener at Wembley, the Three Lions’s first game since their memorable summer run to the semi-finals.

Harry Kane will be presented with the Golden Boot as a sell-out crowd show their appreciation to the England squad, but Southgate knows they cannot bask for long in the World Cup afterglow.

The 48-year-old points to the fact there are just 20 matches and 10 camps before Euro 2020 and reiterated his side are far from the finish product.

“It’s about development as a team, back to improvement,” Southgate said.

“Over the summer you’re looking for results – now it’s about improving as a team, developing the way we play. Improving the tactical detail of the way we play and testing ourselves over the next few months, in particular, against some really top teams.

“The summer was brilliant and it’s great that we have a full house and that everybody will feel the appreciation and that we can step out in front of our fans again. But for us now the summer is finished and it’s about the next step and the next challenges.

“Sport doesn’t stand still for anybody. You’ve got to move forward, continually evolve, increase that competition.

“I know the players are of the same mentality, they’re all of an age where what’s next is the most important thing.”

This group have already achieved a lot, from ending England’s major tournament knockout hoodoo to reaching the last four and finally triumphing in a penalty shoot-out.

Saturday’s clash with Spain offers the chance to get another monkey off their back by beating a top side in a competitive match.

“I think we want to test ourselves against the very best,” Southgate said ahead of the Group A4 encounter.

“The last 18 months we chose to play Brazil, Germany, Spain, Italy, so we weren’t hiding from those fixtures.

“If you look back through history, England’s competitive record against top teams is non-existent. I think bar Argentina in 2002, who were a big disappointment in that tournament anyway, it’s very rare since the late 60s or early 1970s that we beat those top teams.

“So, this isn’t just this team, historically it’s not impressive. Ideally over the next couple of years we’d like to be going into European Championship with a record of beating top teams, so that you go in with that real belief and confidence.”

England missed an opportunity to end that wait in the third-place play-off against Belgium, while the semi-final loss to Croatia has not been brushed under the carpet.

“We reviewed it as we do most games, really,” Southgate said of the Moscow semi-final.

“Spain is a slightly different tactical test. They have outstanding midfield players in the same way Croatia did, but not the identical test that we faced. And, of course, we don’t 100 per cent know how they’re going approach the game with the new coach (Luis Enrique).”

Southgate says he will largely name the same side that started against Croatia on Saturday, with Luke Shaw pushing to come in for the overlooked Ashley
Young as Raheem Sterling’s injury withdrawal opens up an attacking role.

But the first name on the team sheet is likely be Kane, who joined Southgate in the pre-match press conference and will wear a pair of gold boots against Spain.

“I think if I look at other international managers, they would love to be in the position I am in to be able to pick him,” Southgate said of his skipper.

“I’ve sat with a few at matches over the last couple of months and they’ve told me exactly that.

“The great thing is Harry is 24, so to have reached the level he has already and with time on his side is really exciting.”

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