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 present a hazardous hurdle for the Three Lions in Thursday’s semi-final in Guimaraes.
A run to the semi-finals 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 the Dutch 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 were 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 semi-final, 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 they 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.”
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 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 champions 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 their 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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Fernando Santos’ side topped group A3 with an unbeaten campaign, owning two wins and two draws against Italy and Poland. Cristiano Ronaldo is back in the Portuguese squad after missing their four games in the competition.
Switzerland finished the group stage ahead of World Cup semi-finalists Belgium on goal difference. Vladimir Petkovic’s team came from 2-0 down to beat Belgium by 5-2 in the last round of group A2.
The winner of Wednesday’s semi-final will face the winner of Netherlands v England, who play on Thursday in Guimaraes. The final takes place on Sunday (June 09) in Porto.
Ahead of the clash, Arsenal and Switzerland midfielder Granit Xhaka has been speaking to the media.
Hear what he has to say about Ronaldo an co. in the clip above
Club football begins its summer break as attention switches to the international stage, and of course, the transfer window.
However, before all the madness gets under way, the pause does allow some time for reflection.
It’s been an intriguing year for European football, even if every single champion from the top-five leagues in 2017/18 retained their title in 2018/19 – the first time this has ever happened.
Somewhat predictably, Barcelona, Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain all claimed their respective domestic trophies. Ajax are the new bright young things on the block while Spain witnessed the awakening of a sleeping giant in Valencia.
We examine the 10 best teams from Europe this season taking into account domestic league, cup and European competitions.
1. Liverpool | Premier League runner-up, Champions League winners
In literally any other Premier League season, we would be talking about Liverpool as double winners.
A 97-point haul was enough only for second place despite the tally amounting to the third highest ever recorded in England’s top flight – bettered only by Manchester City this season and last.
In fact, City’s 2-1 win in January denied Liverpool the title, an invincible season and 100 points.
Still, Jurgen Klopp’s Red men have tangible success to attach to their powerhouse football with a sixth European Cup attained in Madrid following a controlled 2-0 win over Tottenham.
The champions of Europe are number one.
2. Manchester City | Premier League, FA Cup and League Cup winners
The top two sides in Europe are clear. City’s football under Pep Guardiola is absolutely remarkable and one could argue they deserve to be placed above Liverpool after becoming the first team ever to sweep up all three English domestic trophies.
In two Premier League seasons, City have hoovered up an absurd 198 points. The 98 accrued this season was achieved without their premier playmaker Kevin De Bruyne for much of the campaign while simultaneously going deep in four competitions.
Only VAR denied them against Spurs in the Champions League quarter-final and as far as England is concerned, they were an omnipotent force.
3. Ajax | Eredivisie, KNVB Cup winners and Champions League semi-finalist
No team in Europe has played more attractive football than Ajax this season. Erik Ten Hag’s exuberant young side pass both the eye test and maths exam when it comes to justifying that claim.
Ajax scored a whopping 119 goals – higher than any outfit in Europe with 14 different goalscorers and four plundering 10 or more – on their way to a first Eredivisie title since 2014 and also battered Willem II 4-0 for a first KNVB Cup success in nine years.
The new darlings of Europe only missed out on a Champions League final because of an inferior Tottenham side’s late heroics.
They conquered Juventus and Real Madrid en route but unfortunately for Ajax, the Dutch side will be ransacked over the summer losing inspirational captain Matthijs de Ligt and mercurial midfielder Frenkie de Jong among others.
4. Barcelona | La Liga winners, Copa del Rey runner-up and Champions League semi-finalist
Barcelona’s position so high up this list may cause some contention. Those pleading with the club to axe Ernesto Valverde will find little support here, though.
Granted, the expectations for Barca are to contend for top spot with Champions League success high on their agenda, but their accomplishments this season must not be ignored.
They recorded a 9-2 aggregate score against Real Madrid across four Clasico clashes – two in the Copa del Rey semi-final – and the 19-point gap between the two rivals was Barca’s biggest-ever advantage. Lionel Messi entered a new dimension this season, taking another Golden Shoe with him after scoring 36 goals.
But despite their league dominance, defeats in the Copa del Rey final to Valencia on the back of their humiliating surrender to Liverpool in the Champions League semi-final, means they sit fourth on this list despite the close proximity to a storied treble.
5. Bayern Munich | Bundesliga and DFB-Pokal winners
Bayern were the form team of 2019. The resurrection of Niko Kovac’s Bayern career is something to marvel at because early in the year he looked destined for the chop.
At one point Die Roten, shortly after the winter break, were nine points off Borussia Dortmund and clear schisms emerged from a squad which had cracked in retaliation to the new coach’s demands.
Even as fault lines appeared in Dortmund and Bayern recovered to close the gap, the seismic exit to Liverpool in the Champions League quarter-finals rocked Kovac’s unstable foundation further.
Chastised for his unsophisticated and ambiguous attacking philosophy, the Croatian was struggling to appease former legends who walk the corridors of power. He was questioned for his ability to tactically outwit elite coaches in the bigger games, until Bayern decimated Dortmund 5-0 in April.
The Bundesliga race swung their way and they easily secured their seventh straight title on the final day. RB Leipzig were swatted away 3-0 in the DFB-Pokal final and so a domestic double means this season’s most unlikely comeback might not even be Spurs or Liverpool, but actually Kovac.
6. Atalanta | Qualified for Champions League and Coppa Italia runner-up
Bet you didn’t know Ajax had a twin brother in Italy? Indeed, Gian Piero Gasperini has overseen the best season in Atalanta’s history, doing so in thoroughly entertaining style.
In a league containing traditional powerhouses Juventus, Napoli, the two Milan sides and Roma, the Bergamo-outfit finished third – their highest ever Serie A finish – and qualified for the Champions League for the first time while scoring a league-high tally of 77 goals.
Their season could have been so much sweeter had they claimed just a second-ever major title in the Coppa Italia final.
Alas Lazio were successful, but Atalanta knocked out Juventus en route and remained unbeaten across three clashes with the champions in all competitions.
Their relentless and intoxicating fast-paced pressing system was beautiful to see, as was Duvan Zapata’s transformation from back-to-goal target man to breaking-the-lines predator. The Colombian scored 23 times in Serie A, a mark only bettered by Sampdoria’s ageless wonder Fabio Quagliarella.
7. Chelsea | Europa League winners, League Cup runner-up and qualified for Champions League
Plenty of noise has been made during Maurizio Sarri’s first season in England with Chelsea, yet the Italian has quietly directed one of the most volatile clubs into two cup finals, won one of them and steered the side into third place in the Premier League.
Had Chelsea sustained their stunning start under Sarri – they were unbeaten in through the first 12 games – then the complexion of their campaign would have been decidedly different.
Even still, as squad disharmony grew and grew as the season wore on, Chelsea didn’t taste one defeat in the Europa League and dominated Arsenal in the final.
Only penalties separated them from City in the League Cup showpiece and remarkably, considering how much Mauricio Pochettino is lauded, Chelsea finished behind only the champions and Liverpool.
Okay, Eden Hazard had a massive role to play in their success, but still, it cannot be denied that Sarri has enjoyed a more than decent first season, one which will land him the Juventus post.
8. Juventus | Serie A winners
The reason why Sarri has a hotseat to take over is because of the underachievement of Juve this season.
In the end, Massimiliano Allegri left on his terms but he may well have been pushed out regardless after failures in Europe and domestically.
They were trampled by Ajax in the quarter-finals of the Champions League with their painfully slow style no match for the zip and speed of the young Dutch giants.
This was after they needed Cristiano Ronaldo to individually carry them past Atletico Madrid in the last-16. The Bianconeri were knocked out of the Coppa Italia by Atalanta but they did enjoy a serene waltz to an eighth straight Scudetto, a first from Europe’s top-five leagues.
9. Valencia | Copa del Rey winners, Europa League semi-finals and qualified for Champions League
Marcelino can be filed alongside Kovac for tremendous turnarounds in 2018/19. Credit to Valencia for sticking by the Spaniard despite suffering for much of the season.
Los Che were 10 points off fourth spot at one point but surged in 2019 to secure their place in the Champions League next season. It was the first time such a points difference had been surmounted for fourth in La Liga.
The players, supporters and board all stuck by Marcelino throughout a testing year and they were all rewarded with a first major trophy since 2008 after deservedly beating Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final.
In truth, Valencia had played good football all season but just couldn’t score goals despite their creation. Once goals arrived, so did success. Arsenal were too strong in the Europa League semi-finals, yet the thousands who poured onto the streets to celebrate their Copa glory won’t care about that.
10. Borussia Dortmund | Bundesliga runner-up
No one really anticipated Dortmund would challenge Bayern in 2018/19, but that they did and came so close to ending the hegemony, this season is now ultimately one of deflation for Lucien Favre.
The contrast of their luminous yellow kit was turned up to the max thanks to a bright young core of Achraf Hakimi, Abdou Diallo, Manuel Akanji and Jacob Bruun Larsen, spearhead by Jadon Sancho who contributed to 26 goals in the Bundesliga. Injuries and inexperience dulled their season, though, particularly since the turn of the year.
Dortmund under Favre are explosive, both in blowing themselves and opponents apart. They’ve already made eye-catching moves in the transfer window so we can expect another challenge next season.