By Neil Leverett
- England face the Netherlands in Guimaraes on Thursday evening, looking to book spot in Sunday’s Nations League final
- Hosts Portugal face Switzerland in first semi-final on Wednesday in Porto
- Three Lions could win their first silverware in over 50 years this weekend
GUIMARAES, PORTUGAL – With a place in the UEFA Nations League final this weekend at stake, Gareth Southgate’s England look to continue a remarkable 12 months against Oranje
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Three Lions seek final passage
It scarcely seems believable that last summer’s World Cup finals in Russia took place only 12 months ago. A time when football almost came home, but also when a nation began to dream again, that England could compete in a major tournament once more as real contenders.
Though Croatia untimely dashed hopes in the last four, a nation politically divided – but united by the Three Lions’ Russian odyssey – the progress made by Gareth Southgate‘s men would spill into the coming months in the inaugural UEFA Nations League tournament, leading to an historic win against Spain in La Furia Roja’s own back yard, and then a dramatic and stirring victory against the World Cup runners-up last November at Wembley – exacting revenge against Vatreni.
Harry Kane‘s 85th-minute winner in the capital last Autumn booked their place in the semi-finals, and on the eve now of the last four in Portugal, England will look to complete what has been a sensational sporting rear-guard resurgence with the chance to win their first trophy since 1966.
To even get the opportunity to do so however, Southgate’s still embryonic Lions must past a stern Netherlands test, who themselves have begun to regain their footing – literally – having missed out on last year’s summer expedition to Russia.
Full strength England?
Three month removed from the end of the domestic campaign, England’s squad preparation will have been greatly affected by last week’s double-header of all-Premier League Europa League and Champions League finals.
No less than eight men were in action for the clubs in the past seven days, with Liverpool skipper Jordan Henderson, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joe Gomez taking part in the weekend’s finale in Spain – having returned home to Merseyside to celebrate a sixth European Cup win over Spurs just days ago – whilst Danny Rose and a not fully match- fit Kane, also played a full 90 minutes in Madrid.
Whilst Oranje will also name a starting XI likely to contain both Virgil van Dijk and Georginio Wijnaldum in Guimaraes this Thursday, there will be concerns over England’s readiness for the contest. Indeed, the squad will only train on Wednesday for the first time together.
Kane’s only recent return to training will be of the greatest concern, but that will be offset by the form of Raheem Sterling who has enjoyed arguably his best Premier League campaign – having returned to the goals in his country’s colours – and also Jadon Sancho who has flourished in German football and looks to be the future on the English plans on the right wing.
Stern Dutch test awaits
Standing in the way of England hopes lie a Dutch side on the rise, after a difficult few years in the wilderness of international competition. After failing to make the World Cup for the first time since 2002, and after being runners-up four years earlier, Oranje players are becoming household names again as they were in the late 2000’s and Total Football era of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s.
Led by van Dijk, the Dutch defence is perhaps the strongest in the game anywhere right now and Head Coach Ronald Koeman could name a back five to accommodate van Dijk, Stefan de Vrij and Mathias de Ligt who was instrumental in Ajax’s semi-final run in the Champions League this past term.
Joined by clubmates Frenkie de Jong – who could also be bound for Barcelona in the summer – the engine room of Netherlands midfield is bolstered by Donny van der Beek, who is beginning to be mentioned amongst the same Dutch central midfield legend as Marc van Bommel, Philip Cocu and Ruud Gullit.
In attack questions remain on former Manchester United forward Memphis Depay, but having scored four times in as many games internationally, is a threat that cannot be dismissed. Nor can Ryan Babel, who has enjoyed a decent loan spell with Fulham since January and who knows how to get the better of similar defences he has faced domestically this season.
The Dutch may have only squeaked into the semi-final by the skin of their teeth after two late goals against Germany in Gelsenkirchen last November, but after the steep rising curve of many of the Dutch players have had, England will have a task to reach this weekend’s finals at the Estadio Do Dragao in Porto.
Portuguese duel with Swiss
In the other semi-final, Portugal will look to make home advantage count as host in the first UEFA Europe League finals game as they face Switzerland on Wednesday evening.
Fernando Santos will be able to name his talisman Cristiano Ronaldo in his starting XI having been rested from the Group stages of the tournament, but the Juventus man only begins to touch on the threat Selecao das Quinas possess in their ranks.
Bernando Silva has enjoyed his best season to date for Manchester City, whilst Diogo Jota has also lit up Premier League playing grounds for Wolves. Joao Felix is already being touted as the next big thing in Portuguese football at the tender age of just 19 and could win his first cap this week. Dyego Sousa could also feature after an impressive campaign for Sporting Braga.
Portugal may indeed be the favourites to reach the final, but Switzerland are not to be underestimated after hammering Belgium 5-2 to reach the finals. The Swiss threat will be driven predominantly by Haris Seferovic, who scored a hat-trick against the side that finished third at the World Cup and has improved dramatically, after a prolific season on Portuguese shores for Benfica. With an attacking midfield threat of the unpredictable Xherdan Shaqiri, Vladimir Petkovic has the aces of Stephen Zuber and Dennis Zakaria up his sleeve also.
Driven forward by Arsenal man Granit Xhaka – with the added set piece threat both from deliveries and free-kick – Remo Freuler played a demonstrable part in Atalanta finishing in third spot in Serie A this past season, and the 27-year-old will look to convert his form in Bergamo to the UEFA Nations League.
The UEFA Nations League semi-finals begin on Wednesday evening, as Portugal face Switzerland at Estadio do Dragao in Porto, kick-off time 7.45pm UK time.
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