Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 28 November 2020

Frank de Boer and Luis Enrique see managerial skills tested ahead of Netherlands and Spain clash

Former Barca teammates have seen their respective squads ravaged by injuries to key players

Netherlands manager Frank De Boer is without a win from his first three games in charge. AFP
Netherlands manager Frank De Boer is without a win from his first three games in charge. AFP

Luis Enrique, manager of Spain, and his Dutch counterpart Frank de Boer, ought to know each other inside out. They were team-mates at Barcelona for over 120 matches, winning a Spanish league title together in 1999, and leaned over five years as colleagues that both had a number of strings to their bows.

De Boer was the central defender with a midfielder’s eye for a pass who could fill in at full-back. Luis Enrique was the versatile warrior who would, and did, play in almost every position, from right-back to anchoring midfield to centre-forward.

To be an international coach in a disorientating 2020 means being similarly adaptable, and when a compromised Spain meet a depleted Netherlands in Amsterdam on Wednesday, both managers’ will have their resourcefulness examined.

Luis Enrique has just lost, to serious injury, his most exciting junior star: Barcelona’s Ansu Fati is expected to be out for at least four months after undergoing knee surgery.

A grave knee injury has meant Holland’s senior star and captain, Virgil van Dijk, of Liverpool, is in doubt for next summer’s European Championship.

It deprives the friendly of one duel – precocious Fati versus stately Van Dijk – that would have captivated. But no Netherlands-Spain game is short of sub-plots.

The fixture resonates with memories of epic contests from recent Worlds Cups, like the final of 2010, when Spain’s finesse eventually overcame Dutch ruggedness – nine yellow cards, one red – and the brutal cutting down to size of Spain's champions by the Dutch, 5-1, in Brazil in 2014, featuring the airborne Robin Van Persie.

There will be a pair of survivors from those matches at the Johan Cruyff arena, Spain’s two Sergios, Busquets and Ramos.

For one of them a landmark beckons. Should Ramos play a part, he will equal the Italian Gigi Buffon’s record for the most international caps by any European footballer. Ramos is on 175.

It is not implausible, given his form, his stamina and ambition that the 34-year-old may not only catch up on Ahmed Hassan, the great Egyptian midfielder, who reached a world record 184 caps with his last international in 2012, but that Ramos could even break the 200 mark if he is still leading his country at the 2022 World Cup.

In between now and then, there is a European Championship, in which Spain aspire to go all the way to the final, another edition of the National League finals, which Spain could secure qualification for next week. That’s a high stack of potential fixtures, provided Ramos maintains his fitness.

The defence Ramos commands against the Netherlands and in the Nations League fixtures against Switzerland and Germany will be rather less experienced than he.

Spain manager Luis Enrique has lost the services of Barcelona attacker Ansu Fati to injury for the next four months. EPA
Spain manager Luis Enrique has lost the services of Barcelona attacker Ansu Fati to injury for the next four months. EPA

Tottenham Hotspur’s Sergio Reguilon – three caps – is expected to occupy the left-back position. With the veteran Jesus Navas, a world champion on the wing in 2010 and now reinvented as Luis Enrique’s first choice right-back, absent with injury and the Real Madrid right-back Dani Carvajal also unfit, Arsenal’s Hector Bellerin has been brought in as cover. Bellerin should win his fourth cap almost five years since he won his third.

There are also recalls for Koke, the midfielder, after a gap of two years, for striker Alvaro Morata a year after his last Spain game and a first call-up for midfielder Marcos Llorente.

All three are Atletico Madrid employees – Morata is on loan at Juventus – which, Luis Enrique hopes, will put to rest an old, unfounded, suspicion he reluctantly picks players from that club. “There have never been any veto or anything like that,” he insisted when he named his squad. “People can believe me or not.”

Vetoes are scarcely an option for national head coaches in a season where a packed fixture list means a high frequency of injuries, and the pandemic regularly excluded players who test positive for coronavirus. Spain are missing Liverpool’s Thiago as he completes a period of quarantine.

De Boer certainly needs an open mind, to cast his net wider and wider. His short time so far in the job has been peppered with bad news arriving from club football.

He had barely started when his captain, Van Dijk was ruled out long term. Fellow central defender Matthijs de Ligt, of Juventus, is recuperating from injury, and first-choice goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen withdrew from this squad with a muscle strain.

Striker Steven Bergwijn, of Tottenham Hotspur, was also on his way home yesterday, after Dutch medical staff deemed him short of fitness. And De Boer needs all the forwards he can lay his hands on. Three matches into his tenure, the Dutch have no wins and just one goal.

Netherlands captain Virgil van Dijk picked up a serious knee injury playing for Liverpool after this challenge by Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford. PA
Netherlands captain Virgil van Dijk picked up a serious knee injury playing for Liverpool after this challenge by Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford. PA

Updated: November 11, 2020 07:23 AM

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