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Euros final beckons for one of imperfect England or the Netherlands

AFP . Dortmund
09 Jul 2024 20:07:02 | Update: 09 Jul 2024 20:07:02
Euros final beckons for one of imperfect England or the Netherlands
— Courtesy Photo

England have a first ever major tournament final on foreign soil in their sights in Wednesday's Euro 2024 semi-final when they face a Netherlands side hitting their stride in Dortmund.

The Three Lions are aiming to match their run to the Euro 2020 final, when they lost in heartbreaking fashion on penalties to Italy at Wembley.

England's only ever major tournament triumph also came on home soil at the 1966 World Cup.

Gareth Southgate's men are out to end 58 years of hurt and have shown remarkable resilience, if not the quality expected of one of the pre-tournament favourites, in Germany.

Twice England have stared down a humiliating early exit to fight back against Slovakia and Switzerland to reach the last four.

Individual moments of brilliance from Jude Bellingham and Bukayo Saka have kept them alive with late equalisers before beating Slovakia in extra-time and Switzerland on penalties.

Those were flickers of the individual talent at Southgate's disposal and the England boss has defiantly defended his record, even though his side had failed to hit top gear at the tournament so far.

Under Southgate, England are now in a third semi-final in four major tournaments - matching the three semi-finals they had reached in their history prior to his appointment eight years ago.

That has not sheltered the 53-year-old from criticism. Southgate was pelted with beer cups after a 0-0 draw against Slovenia in the group stages and has faced a backlash for his perceived negative tactics with a richly-talented squad.

"I can’t deny then when things get as personal as it has that does hurt. I don’t think it’s normal to have beer thrown at you," said Southgate of his detractors.

"But we’re in a third semi-final in four tournaments, and I think we continue to give people fantastic memories. So we’ll keep grinding, we’ll keep fighting, and we’ll keep enjoying this journey."

Premier League stars collide

A change of formation for the 1-1 draw against Switzerland did result in a marginally improved display from the dramatic win over a Slovakia side ranked 45th in the world.

Southgate is expected to stick by that 3-4-2-1 system with Marc Guehi returning from suspension to replace Ezri Konsa.

The England boss has bristled at suggestions his side ended up on the kind side of the draw, away from France, Spain, Germany and Portugal.

Yet, the Dutch can count themselves even more fortunate for their path to the final after finishing third in Group D behind France and Austria.

Ronald Koeman's men produced their best display of the tournament in sweeping aside Romania 3-0 in the last 16 before battling back from a goal down to beat Turkey 2-1 in front of a hostile crowd in Berlin.

Coming up against a raft of Premier League stars will hold little fear for the Netherlands, who boast their own impressive crop of talent plying their trade in England's top flight.

"If you see the quality of players from both teams, you can expect the rhythm and level of the game will be really high," said Tottenham defender Micky van de Ven.

Liverpool's Cody Gakpo has arguably been the form attacker at the tournament and is the only player to have scored three goals still alive in the competition.

The Dutch have had to wait 36 years since their own sole major tournament triumph, the last time the Euros were held in Germany.

That is also the only time they have ever made a European Championship final.

But they will fancy their chances of being in Berlin on Sunday unless England suddenly click into gear.

Key battles to follow

Kane v Van Dijk

England striker Harry Kane has endured an underwhelming tournament, far from the goal machine he proved in his first season at Bayern Munich.

Finishing the season with a back problem, Kane clearly is nowhere close to his physical peak and now must tussle with Liverpool defender Virgil van Dijk.

The giant Dutchman has not been at his best either but like his team, has improved in the knock-out rounds.

With England coach Gareth Southgate reluctant to take off his stars, keeping Kane marshalled could go a long way to stopping the somewhat limited threat England have thus far been capable of offering.  

Dutch left v England right

Liverpool winger Cody Gakpo is the joint-top scorer at the Euros with three goals and has been the Netherlands' key attacking threat.

Most of their dangerous moves rely on his involvement at some point in the process, but in England right-back Kyle Walker he faces a tough defender to get the better of.

The Manchester City man can match Gakpo for pace and Southgate will instruct Bukayo Saka to be diligent in his tracking back to help minimise the threat down the Netherlands' left flank.

At the other end Arsenal's Saka faces off with a familiar foe in City's Nathan Ake, who has fared well against him at club level, but still names the England winger as one of his toughest opponents.

Bellingham v Schouten and Reijnders

While England and Real Madrid midfielder Jude Bellingham has not hit top form yet, he has played a decisive role at key moments in England's run to the semi-finals.

The 21-year-old's most dramatic contribution was a stunning overhead kick against Slovakia late in the last 16 clash to save England from elimination.

Netherlands will be looking to their deeper-lying midfield duo Tijjani Reijnders and Jerdy Schouten to keep Bellingham under wraps.

The Dutch pair have fared well together and coach Ronald Koeman seems all-in on them now after starting Joey Veerman against Austria but hauling him off in the first half as the Dutch fell to defeat in their third group game.

Southgate v Koeman

The managers' substitutions may well play a vital role in the outcome of the game, as was evidenced in both of these teams' quarter-final wins.

Southgate brought on Luke Shaw, Cole Palmer and others and England rapidly levelled against Switzerland with just 10 minutes to go.

Three of Southgate's substitutes -- Ivan Toney, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Palmer -- also converted their penalties in England's 5-3 shoot-out win.

Netherlands' Euro 1988 captain Koeman, meanwhile, threw on Wout Weghorst with his team 1-0 down at half-time against Turkey and secured a 2-1 win.

The six-foot-six Burnley target man put the proverbial cat among the pigeons and is raring to do so again against England, where his club career hit a bump in the road.