This week sees the inaugural UEFA Nations League tournament come to a close, with four teams battling it out to be crowned the first ever Nations League champions. Nobody is quite sure how excited to get about it yet, but all the teams involved will be taking it seriously.
Both Netherlands and England have the opportunity to bring home their first piece of major silverware in a long time. The Dutch haven’t won anything of note since the 1988 European Championship, while England are famously without a trophy since 1966. This week marks an opportunity to quell that five decades of hurt, but first they have to navigate their way past a resurgent Netherlands side.
Both teams have a few significant selection doubts for Thursdays match. For the Netherlands, defensive leader Virgil van Dijk and midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum are both coming off the back of a gruelling Champions League Final on Saturday, a match which was probably followed by some equally gruelling celebrations.
England, meanwhile, have five members of their squad that played for at least an hour on Saturday night, with a further two coming off the bench. Danny Rose, Joe Gomez, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Jordan Henderson, Eric Dier, Dele Alli, and Harry Kane could all be feeling the after-effects of such an emotionally charged night.
Both sides have talented replacements available though, so let’s take a look at where Thursday night’s match could be won.
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Marcus Rashford vs Matthijs de Ligt
Harry Kane looked miles off the pace on Saturday night as he was thrown back into action after a prolonged spell on the sidelines. His ineffectual performance and lack of fitness, along with the fact that he played the full 90 minutes in Madrid, means that Gareth Southgate is likely to opt for fresher legs up front on Thursday.
Enter Marcus Rashford. The England starlet hasn’t had his finest season, but he looked much more comfortable when he was used as the spearhead of Manchester United’s attack under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. He has only scored six goals in 31 appearances for the Three Lions, but the majority of those saw him deployed on the flanks. He’s still just 21 years of age, and is expected to line up at the head of a youthful and exciting attacking trio on Thursday.
However, he will come up against one of the finest young defenders in the world in Matthijs de Ligt. The young Ajax captain is still a teenager, but he’s being chased by some of Europe’s top clubs after a sensation season. He led a group of Dutch wonderkids to the Champions League semi finals against all the odds, as well as bringing the Eredivisie title back home for the first time in five years. He will be a mighty obstacle for Rashford to overcome in Portugal, and the winner of this duel could well be a turning point in the tie.
Memphis Depay vs Harry Maguire
It’s safe to say that Memphis Depay’s foray into English football wasn’t quite what he or Manchester United hoped for, but the 25 year old has reinvented himself since moving to Lyon in 2017. He scored 10 goals and provided 10 assists in Ligue 1 this season, and he’s emerged as Ronald Koeman’s favoured striker in his fluid 4-3-3 setup.
He’s doing very well there too, scoring six goals in his last eight appearances for the national team and cementing himself as one of the first names on the teamsheet. His likely challenger on Thrusday night will be Harry Maguire, who burst onto the scene with Leicester in the 2017/18 campaign and was fast-tracked into the England setup, where he has remained as a key figure in the heart of defence.
Maguire averaged 4.9 clearances per game for Leicester this season and has been almost ever-present in the England defence, despite Southgate’s experimentation with different systems and players. He made his debut for England under two years ago, and has gone on to appear in 18 of England’s 22 matches since. His aim on Thursday will be to remind Depay just how tough the English game can be.
Frenkie de Jong vs Declan Rice
A number of Ajax starlets hit the big time this season after their sensation run in the Champions League, and Frenkie de Jong’s talents weren’t ignored for very long. In fact, the 22-year-old was snapped up by Barcelona for a reported €75m in January and has continued to gain plaudits ever since with his composure on the ball and extraordinary passing ability.
de Jong averaged almost 80 passes per game in the Eredivisie this season, registering a pass success rate of 91.1%. Let’s just say that the Barcelona-bound midfielder knows what to do with the ball at his feet, and one of Eric Dier’s unenviable jobs on Thursday will be to stop him splitting the England defence apart.
With many of his midfield compatriots playing a part in Madrid on Saturday, Declan Rice could be in line to make just his second start for England. He’s just 20 years old, but he has shown a maturity to his game that belies his years for West Ham this season and is fully deserving of a chance here. In the Premier League this season, he averaged 2.9 tackles and 1.5 interceptions from his holding midfield berth, and his job on Thursday will be to break up the midfield orchestra led by Frenkie de Jong.
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Steven Bergwijn vs Ben Chilwell
Netherlands’ attacking setup means they’re almost impossible to predict, with all three of their main forwards being completely interchangeable. However, Steven Bergwijn’s likely role will be over on the right hand side of the attack, trying to get the better of the inexperienced but highly talented Ben Chilwell.
Berwijn’s club might not have hit the same dizzying heights as some of his compatriots this season, but on a personal level it’s been a very productive one for the PSV attacker. He has scored 14 Eredivisie goals and laid on 12 assists over his 33 appearances, popping up with equal effectiveness on both the left and right sides of attack. Only Marcus Edwards of Excelsior made more dribbles per game than Bergwijn, so Chilwell will have his work cut out on Thursday.
Chilwell is no stranger to talented attackers coming at him though. He’s faced some of the Premier League’s best in his 36 appearances for Leicester this season, and while he’s not the best defensive left back in the world he certainly knows how to push back at his opponents when launching attacks of his own.
Jadon Sancho vs Daley Blind
So much of this fixture can be billed as exciting young talents facing off with each other, but over on England’s right flank we could see another type of battle entirely. On the one hand you have the extraordinary talent and pace of teenage sensation Jadon Sancho, and on the other stands a 29 year old left back blessed with an uncanny footballing instinct.
Sancho has been a revelation for Borussia Dortmund this season, appearing in all 34 of their Bundesliga matches as they pushed the title challenge to the final day. He scored 12 goals and provided 14 assists, and terrorised defences across Germany with an league topping average of 3.3 dribbles per game. He’s fast, exciting, and lethal in front of goal.
Daley Blind is about as far at the other end of the spectrum as you can get though. The former Manchester United man has never been blessed with a rapid turn of pace or monstrous strength and height. Instead, he relies on his incredible positioning and footballing knowledge to break up attacks and launch his own from the left back position. This will be an intriguing battle of youthful vigour and pace vs experience and positioning.