6:33 PM ET
Netherlands are a great footballing nation looking for their next great era. It hasn’t arrived in time for Euro 2020, but judging by their 3-2 win over Ukraine on Sunday night, they will be fun to watch until someone says it’s time to go home.
On Sunday, they had to win the game twice — first leading 2-0, then conceding two goals in four minutes and eventually needing a header from defender Denzel Dumfries five minutes from time to ensure they began with a victory in Amsterdam. In control of Group C, which also includes Austria and North Macedonia, they will be expected to reach the knockout rounds. What happens beyond that is anyone’s guess.
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For now, manager Frank de Boer has eased some of the pressure that has built up since he replaced Ronald Koeman in September. Although questions will still be asked about why, with his team two goals to the good, he decided to throw on Nathan Ake and Owen Wijndal and invite the pressure that allowed Ukraine to lift themselves from the canvas and get to within touching distance of a point.
“I am relieved,” said Georginio Wijnaldum, who opened the scoring for Netherlands. “Overall, we played a good game, but we gave them two chances in 10 minutes, which were two goals.
“We need to learn that if we play such a match, we need to finish it off well. We let them get back into the game, and that needs to improve.”
It had been seven years since the Oranje played a game in a major tournament, after missing out on Euro 2016 and the World Cup in 2018. Louis van Gaal led them to a third-place finish at the 2014 World Cup, but at Euro 2012 — their last appearance in this competition — they lost all three group games and were on the beach before the serious stuff started.
The buildup this time has been less than ideal, with De Boer having to deal with, among other criticisms, planes flying over their training base urging him to play 4-3-3 rather and with five at the back. He has not convinced everyone since stepping in for Koeman, when he left for Barcelona, and while victory here will not silence many of the doubters. Ukraine have not arrived to make up the numbers.
The Netherlands won a thrilling 3-2 contest over Ukraine, but the pressure on Peter de Boer will only increase due to some questionable decision-making. Getty
The seeded team in Group C after qualifying ahead of Portugal, they beat Spain in the Nations League in October and drew their World Cup qualifier with France in March. With three teams qualifying from four of the six groups, Andriy Shevchenko will have seen enough in his team’s fight back to believe they can make it out of the first stage.
“It was a very quick and interesting game with loads of opportunities for both teams,” said the former Milan and Chelsea striker.
“I would like to thank my team for the reaction they showed, especially after going 2-0 down. We could have lost the game at that point. We found energy to change and attack. We switched the formation and balanced it. The team gave a very good account of themselves.”
On a different night, Netherlands could have scored six, and it says everything about the way they attacked that Dumfries, playing as a wing-back, probably should have already scored twice before his late winner. And there were fears De Boer has made them boring.
‘We played a pretty good match, but we almost gave everything away in five minutes,” said the 51-year-old manager. “We should have scored more goals in the first half. But all in all, this is a pretty good start.”
Memphis Depay needed just 90 seconds to pick up the ball in his own half, nutmeg Illia Zabarnyi and force Georgiy Bushchan into a low save to his right. Wijnaldum, who showed why Paris Saint-Germain and Barcelona have spent the last month fighting over his signature, then set up Dumfries’ first chance with a clever flick, but Bushchan was equal to it.
“I am a proud captain, because we have won this match,” Wijnaldum said. “We gave away two chances; which turned into two goals. I think everybody was angry and disappointed, especially after the second goal of Ukraine. It was a great night for Denzel Dumfries; very nice for him the head home the decisive goal.”
Dumfries fizzed in a cross that needed a Ruud van Nistelrooy or a Robin van Persie poaching in the box. And then Bushchan produced one of the saves of the tournament so far with a strong left hand to keep out Wijnaldum’s volley despite his weight taking him in the wrong direction. Then it was Dumfries again, heading wide at the back post when it seemed easier to score.
The PSV Eindhoven defender was a menace all night and played a part in second-half goals for Wijnaldum and Wout Weghorst with barrelling runs down the right. West Ham winger Andriy Yarmolenko pulled a goal back with a beautifully guided finish after cutting in from the right, and when Roman Yaremchuk headed in an equaliser with 11 minutes to go, Netherlands looked on the verge of a spectacular collapse.
Working as a pundit on English television, former midfielder Nigel de Jong said he could “see the headlines” about De Boer when Ukraine’s second goal went in, but Dumfries made sure they were quickly rewritten with his first international goal.
The story of Netherlands’ return to tournament football should be a thriller.