The first-ever UEFA Nations League draws to a close over this next week with unusual, high praise for the ingenuity of UEFA in the creation of a tournament which has proven itself as an exciting addition to the international calendar.
The excitement and stakes will rise even higher in the final two matches in Group 1 of League A in the Nations League as the Netherlands have two massive games to potentially hand themselves top spot in the group while France are in pole position as they head to Rotterdam.
It isn’t in doubt that the Netherlands, at one stage, were one of the best national teams on the planet. From the years of Total Football, Johann Cruyff and their European Championship victory in 1988 to the Golden Generations of the early 2000’s which featured the likes of Patrick Kluivert and Dennis Bergkamp and years later, the appearance in the 2014 World Cup Final, the Dutch know a thing or two about being a top-level international side.
It is fair to say then, that the last few years have been some of the worst in their history with the national team falling to their worst ever FIFA ranking of 36. An unusual feeling for the Oranje and their colourful, passionate fans. Since that final appearance in Brazil, the Dutch have declined massively and failed to qualify for the last two major international tournaments.
France vs Netherlands Nations League Football
They were, unthinkably, left trailing behind Czech Republic, Turkeyand Iceland in Euro 2016 qualifying before finishing behind Sweden and France in their quest for Russia in 2018. To illustrate just how much of a decline this is – the Dutch didn’t lose a single game in qualifying campaigns for the 2010 (they were 100%) and 2014 World Cup.
Now though, there is hope rising from the depths of despair. There is a feel-good factor once more. This is a team that has lost only three of their last seventeen international fixtures, twice to France and once to England and also a team that has a real chance of making it back to a major tournament via the Nations League. Two wins in their final two games is the objective to reach the play-offs and while those fixtures are against two of the best national sides in the world, the belief is back.
The Dutch, of course, have been here before. After the Total Football era, they missed three successive tournaments before going on to win the European Championship so while the Netherlands know failure, they know a thing or two about redemption too.
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The French, much like their opponents on Saturday evening, have always been an elite national side and while the Dutch are slowly awakening from their slumber, the current World Champions are riding the crest of a wave that has seen them reach the European Championship final in their homeland in 2016 and obtain the biggest prize of them all, the World Cup, in Russia in 2018.
Kylian Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann, N’Golo Kante, Ousmane Dembele and more. This is a team full of household names and stars of world football. The strength in depth displayed across the squad is frightening and there are all the tools in place for this side to go on and dominate international football for years to come.
The next logical step in their quest for domination then is to claim the European Championships in 2020. To obtain that, the French have to top this group and then win the play-offs next June which would also bag them another trophy, the inaugural Nations League trophy, along the way.
After an opening day draw away in Germany followed by home wins over that same nation and also against the Dutch, the French are sitting pretty at the top. They are four points clear and need only a point on their trip to Rotterdam to secure top spot. If they get beaten though, they must hope that the Netherlands don’t also turn over Germany in Gelsenkirchen three days later or else they will finish second in the group.
There is also plenty of reason for France to be wary. For all of their their quality, they were almost held in Saint-Denis in September after Ryan Babel equalized late on before Olivier Giroud rescued the three points in a game that was far from comfortable.
The warning signs are there for France but they have only lost one of their last twenty-three games and are more than capable of leaving with the necessary point to secure top spot in the group.
The Netherlands come into this game with little injury problems although will be missing regular squad players Daryl Janmaat, Eljero Elia and Davy Propper who were called up for matches in September and October. Promising striker Justin Kluivert also misses out on the chance to win his third cap.
Jasper Cillessen, Daley Blind, Georgino Wijnaldum and Ryan Babel are the most experienced in their respective positions in the squad and are all available. Usual names such as Memphis Depay, Kevin Strootman and Virgil van Dijk will all be in contention to start in Rotterdam.
Donny van de Beek and Frenkie de Jong have impressed for Ajaxthis season as they look to win their sixth and fourth caps respectively. Denzel Dumfries of PSV has also had a good season thus far and will be looking to add to his two caps.
Javairo Dilrosun of Bundesliga side Hertha BSC and AZ Alkmaargoalkeeper Marco Bizot are the only uncapped players in the side but are both unlikely to feature in either match.
France will be without one of their biggest names in Paul Pogba on Saturday evening. The enigmatic midfielder misses out alongside his Manchester United team-mate Anthony Martial, a player who has only just worked his way back into the national team set-up. Alexandre Lacazette has found a scoring touch at Arsenal but he is also unavailable.
The other superstars are ready to go though, with Mbappe the one to watch, as usual. The live-wire is truly one of the best players in the world at the tender age of 19, he has a World Cup to his name, ten goals in 26 caps and anything good from France will likely come from the PSG forward.
Giroud, Blaise Matuidi, Raphael Varane and Hugo Lloris are the most experienced in their positions in the squad although Dembele, Kante, Benjamin Pavard and a few others have already become integral members of the squad now and will be expected to be in the future.
Tanguy Ndombele is shining at Lyon this season and may add to his two caps at some stage on Saturday. Nabil Fekir is recently back from injury while Florian Thauvin is another exciting player that struggles to get as much game time simply due to the sheer strength of the French attack.
Uncapped Ferland Mendy features in this squad after the withdrawal of his namesake Benjamin Mendy and will do well to see any game time at all. Alassane Plea has been in tremendous form for Borussia Monchengladbach in Germany this season and could earn a first cap but he faces a struggle to break into a stacked forward line.
Netherlands and France have met 27 previous times ahead of their match on Saturday with the Dutch winning ten of their encounters compared to the thirteen times that France have come away victorious. Four have ended in stalemate.
Interestingly, Netherlands have scored more goals (54) than France (47) but have less victories than their opponents.
These two have been familiar foes lately having played each other in three of the last four years. The Dutch were beaten soundly in both encounters in qualification for the 2018 World Cup while friendly matches in 2014 and 2016 ended in victory for Les Bleus on both occasions.
Saturday will mark the first meeting between these two sides in Rotterdam since a goalless draw at the de Kuip in 2004.
A similar scoreline will be sufficient for the French but for Netherlands that will see an end to their chances of progression from the group into the play-offs. Even worse, a defeat would leave them at risk of relegation from the league.
A win though, as we know, is the first step ahead of what would then be a massive match with Germany on Tuesday. If this scenario, winning two matches against two of the top nations in international football, was presented to the Netherlands a couple of years ago, there would’ve been more than a few that would have laughed off the Dutch having any chance.
Now though, in 2018, there are more than a few that have every belief the Netherlands can win them both and continue their resurgence. Redemption is possible.