PARIS (AFP) – A thrilling crop of young players has Euro 2020 in its sights as the Netherlands prepare for a return to the big stage, while Teemu Pukki’s Finland are on the brink of their first ever major tournament.
Ronald Koeman’s side need just a draw at Northern Ireland on Saturday to guarantee a spot at their first international tournament since coming third at the 2014 World Cup.
The Dutch had been in the doldrums since then until the arrival early in 2018 of Koeman, with the once mighty Oranje missing out on the previous European Championship and last year’s World Cup in Russia.
The 56-year-old has revitalised his country’s dormant national team with the help of a crop of young players who are putting a famous footballing nation back on the map.
Rising stars including Frenkie de Jong, Donny van de Beek and Matthijs de Ligt have joined more experienced campaigners Virgil van Dijk, Georginio Wijnaldum, Daley Blind and Ryan Babel to go top of Group C ahead of the final two rounds of qualifiers.
They are level on 15 points with fierce rivals Germany but above them on head-to-head record and three ahead of Northern Ireland, who realistically need a win to carry on their battle for a spot in the tournament.
A late double from 25-year-old Memphis Depay, a revelation in qualifying with six goals in five appearances, in Rotterdam last month helped sink the brave Northern Irish and means they just have to avoid defeat at Windsor Park to join the likes of Italy and Spain.
Germany, meanwhile, just need to better Northern Ireland’s result to make sure of their place.
The Finns are also on the verge of making history, with a win over lowly Liechtenstein in Helsinki tomorrow enough to see them qualify for their first ever European Championship.
They lie second in Group J behind already-qualified Italy thanks to a magical run inspired by the incredible form of star man Pukki.The Norwich City striker has scored seven of his side’s 12 goals in eight games, with his brace in a 3-0 win over Armenia last time out opening a five-point gap between them and their third-placed opposition.
That win all-but guaranteed them a spot in their first major tournament, and Pukki’s fame in his homeland is such that in September, after a discussion on climate change at the Elysee Palace in Paris, Finnish President Sauli Niinisto handed his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron a Pukki replica shirt.
“There are two games left and it’s in their own hands,” said Finland coach Markku Kanerva.
France are among several big hitters also a hair’s breadth away from the main tournament. They might qualify before they even take the field against Moldova at the Stade de France tonight.
Didier Deschamps’ world champions will take their place at the finals should third-placed Iceland not beat Group H leaders Turkey, although a win for France over bottom side Moldova would be enough regardless of what happens in Istanbul.
Reigning European champions Portugal, meanwhile, will have the chance to defend their title with a win over Lithuania, who have collected just a point from seven Group B games, if Serbia fail to beat Luxembourg.
The Portuguese are a point ahead of the Serbs as coach Fernando Santos recalls Lokomotiv Moscow forward Eder, whose goal won Euro 2016, with teenage star Joao Felix sidelined.