Euro 2020: Return of Netherlands’ to big stage welcome but Belgium’s ‘golden generation’ is nearing crunch time

A MAJOR tournament without the presence of the Dutch is the equivalent of a banquet without wine.

Back in business: Netherlands' Denzel Dumfries, left, celebrates with his teammates after scoring against Austria. Picture: AP
Back in business: Netherlands' Denzel Dumfries, left, celebrates with his teammates after scoring against Austria. Picture: AP

The Netherlands failed to qualify for the Euro 2016 finals and the last World Cup in Russia and for that, they were missed.

Not just for their footballing acumen but also the riot of colour and musical accompaniment in the stands.

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No splash of Oranje to illuminate proceedings and it was back to those grey days of the early to mid-Eighties when a proud football nation who feasted on Total Football in the 70s’ era of Johan Cruyff, Ruud Krol, Johan Neeskens and Rob Resenbrink were awaiting further nourishment from Ruud Gullit, Marco Van Basten, Frank Rijkaard and later Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf, Patrick Kluivert and Dennis Bergkamp.

Kevin De Bruyne: Now or never for his Belgian team-mates.

Now they are back and watching events across the North Sea in Amsterdam in their opening two group victories over Ukraine and Austria was good for the soul.

The Dutch lion is not quite roaring as it once was, but there are signs of life and claws are being sharpened.

The Netherlands were the first side to secure top spot in their group with a game in hand – allowing them to rest some of their leading protagonists against North Macedonia today.

There remains a chance that they could meet another leading nation in the round of 16 in Budapest next Sunday – depending on what happens in the ‘Group of Death’ involving Germany, France and Portugal.

Yet there is also the prospect of facing more modest opposition and the Dutch will avoid a group winner until the semi-final stage – should they get that far.

Criticism levelled in the direction of Frank De Boer for being too conservative in his team selection is also showing signs of abating. That is what the effect of scoring five goals in two group games en route to successive victories does.

Just over a week ago, a plane flew over the Dutch training camp in Zeist urging De Boer to ditch his three-man defence and go to a back four and play a 4-3-3 system. Now there is not so much turbulence and noise with six points in the bank.

Even without the presence of the incomparable Virgil van Dijk, plus Matthijs de Ligt and Stefan de Vrij – two defenders who ply their trade with Serie A giants in Juventus and Inter Milan – the Dutch possess strength and savvy in equal measure and a big-money move surely beckons for PSV Eindhoven’s Denzel Dumfries, whose buccaneering displays down the right hand flank have been a show-stopper.

With a classy technocrat in midfield in Frenkie De Jong – so easy on the eye and comfortable on the ball – and a talismanic captain with prodigious energy levels and drive in Gini Wijnaldum, the Dutch have talents who would grace any top contender.

Even if they lack a natural born predator in the final third and are also without a true top-level defensive midfielder of the ilk of a Davids or Jan Wouters, with ex-Middlesbrough player Marten de Roon not in that bracket.

Yet the Dutch are unquestionably a good watch. Adding a couple more serious players would probably make them a major contender at the next World Cup, for sure.

For the other main football nation in the Low Countries in Belgium, the time is surely now.

Like the Dutch, the Belgians have already sealed participation in the knock-out stages and will be able to rest players where they see fit in this evening’s game against Finland in Saint-Petersburg.

A point will be enough to secure first place and a last-16 meeting with a third-place side in Seville next Monday.

Much has been made of Belgium’s ‘golden generation’, but it is an ageing crop.

Ten players in the Red Devils squad are in their thirties, while Kevin De Bruyne, whose interval arrival against Denmark on Thursday turned the game in irresistible fashion, celebrates his 30th birthday on June 28.

For a team who top the FIFA world rankings, it is now or never.