A spot in the final of the 2022-23 UEFA Nations League is the prize when the Netherlands welcome Croatia to Rotterdam for Wednesday’s semi-final.
Oranje blitzed the competition in League A Group 4 to make the final stages, while the Chequered Ones came up trumps over reigning champions France in League A Group 1.
Before another World Cup campaign of relative indifference, the Netherlands laid down quite the marker in the UEFA Nations League, taking 16 points from a possible 18 on offer against Belgium, Poland and Wales to sail through to the final four.
No team in League A amassed more points than Ronald Koeman’s charges, whose tally of 14 goals was also the highest in the top tier, and only in a 2-2 home draw with Poland did the 2018-19 runners-up fail to take a maximum.
While reigning champions France may soon be relinquishing their crown, the 2022 World Cup silver medallists proved that they are very much still a force to be reckoned with on the international stage back in March, thrashing the shell-shocked Netherlands 4-0 in their opening Euro 2024 qualifying Group B affair.
However, Koeman’s side reverted to type a few days later with a straightforward 3-0 triumph over Gibraltar courtesy of a Nathan Ake brace and Memphis Depay opener, but those continental championships will take a backseat as Oranje vie for a maiden Nations League honour.
Out of their nine UEFA Nations League games on home soil so far, the Netherlands have only been bested once – going down 1-0 to Italy in September 2020 – and either the Azzurri or Spain will be their opponents in the showpiece event should they inflict more late major tournament heartbreak on the Chequered Ones.
Close but no cigar has been the theme for Croatia over the past few years, and it was no different for Zlatko Dalic’s trailblazers in the Middle East, as the Chequered Ones left with a collection of bronze medals to go next to their silver ones from Russia 2018.
Before holding their own against the big boys of the globe once again, Croatia capitalised on France’s misfortunes to finish at the summit of League A Group 1 in the Nations League, taking 13 points from six games against Les Bleus, Denmark and Austria to make the finals for the first time.
Dalic’s side recovered from a nightmare start – in which they lost 3-0 to Austria in the opener – to string together a five-game unbeaten run in the section, winning each of their final four games while conceding just two goals, and they are already at the head of the pack in their Euro 2024 qualifying section.
A 1-1 draw with Wales preceded a 2-0 success over Turkey for the Chequered Ones three months ago, with the latter result marking their first clean sheet since the group stage of the World Cup, and they prevailed in all three of their Nations League away games in the group stage this year having previously suffered five such defeats in succession.
Wednesday’s affair will mark just the third-ever meeting between the Netherlands and Croatia, who beat Oranje in the 1998 World Cup third-place playoff before the Dutch gleaned a slice of revenge with a 3-0 triumph in a 2008 friendly thanks to goals from Johnny Heitinga, Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink and, of course, Klaas Jan Huntelaar.
The Netherlands have already suffered two significant injury blows ahead of Wednesday’s semi-final in the shape of Memphis Depay, who has not recovered from the calf problem that has kept him out since the start of May, and Matthijs de Ligt, who has an identical issue.
Koeman has trimmed his squad since initially naming a 26-man roster, with Tijjani Reijnders and Daley Blind both now out of the team, while Ryan Gravenberch, Steven Berghuis, Stefan de Vrij and Jeremie Frimpong – who has turned down an offer to compete at the Under-21 Euros – are also absent.
With Depay watching on from the treatment room, Liverpool’s Cody Gakpo could be deployed in the number nine role for Oranje, while Ake and Denzel Dumfries will need once-overs after competing in the Champions League final at the weekend.
Croatia can sympathise with their Dutch counterparts when it comes to injuries to key players, as highly-rated RB Leipzig centre-back Josko Gvardiol is still struggling with a groin injury and will miss out on a shot at Nations League glory.
Striker Marko Livaja has also pulled out of the squad in the wake of an ugly training incident, in which he was insulted by a portion of fans who had turned up to watch the practice session, so the onus will be on Andrej Kramaric to deliver the goods up top as ever.
Alongside the Hoffenheim man, Ivan Perisic needs just one more goal to his 34 in Croatia colours and overtake Mario Mandzukic as his nation’s second-highest goalscorer, while a 165th cap will come the way of Luka Modric, who ruled out the prospect of international retirement following the World Cup.
Netherlands possible starting lineup:
Bijlow; Dumfries, Van Dijk, Botman, Ake; De Roon, De Jong, Wijnaldum; Bergwijn, Gakpo, Simons
Croatia possible starting lineup:
Livakovic; Juranovic, Sutalo, Erlic, Sosa; Kovacic, Brozovic, Modric; Pasalic, Kramaric, Perisic