London - 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
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
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
"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
"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
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 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."