Uefa Nations League: Matthijs De Ligt the symbol of a Dutch revival - for club and country
Ajax's 19-year-old captain led his club to the Champions League semi-finals while playing a key role in his national team's march to the Nations League final
On the opening weekend of the last Dutch league season, Ajax were in trouble. They trailed 1-0 at home to Heracles. The minutes were running out, as they pushed for an equaliser and won a last-chance corner. And with it, a routine was set in motion that would come to define a remarkable 10 months ahead.
Hatem Ziyech took the corner. The Ajax captain, teenager Matthijs De Ligt, met it with a header to give his club their first point of an Eredivisie campaign that would end with the claiming of the title on the last day.
They won the Dutch Cup too, propelled into the final by a De Ligt header, from a corner, in the semi against Feyenoord.
Recognise the drill? There’s much more. Ajax would come within seconds of making the Uefa Champions League final. The breakthrough moments of that thrilling ride? A headed De Ligt winner, from a corner, away at Juventus in the last eight. Or perhaps, five minutes into the second leg of their semi against Tottenham Hotspur, when their captain put them 1-0 up, 2-0 on aggregate.
An astonishing comeback from Spurs awaited, but perhaps the most foreseeable event of that night was the way in which de Ligt scored: Yes, a corner. And yes, it was met by the blond beacon that is their goalscoring centre-half.
On Sunday evening at the Estadio do Dragao in Porto, De Ligt, and his Ajax teammates Frenkie de Jong, Daley Blind and Donny van der Beek, go in search of their third trophy of the season, aiming to write the name of the Netherlands at the head of the Uefa Nations League roll of honour.
The prize would go some way to compensating the Ajax quartet for the heartbreak of their European Cup semi-final, and for a Dutch squad full of youthful vim, it would feel like a mark of their revival.
The De Ligt factor is a major part of both storylines: the Ajax reawakening, and the rebooted Dutch juggernaut. The 19-year-old at the heart of Holland’s back four contributed perhaps the key goal to pushing his country into the final against Portugal, the equaliser against England last Thursday that not only replicated what he has been doing from corners all season, but made amends for his earlier error for England’s 1-0 lead in a semi-final the Dutch won 3-1 in extra time.
“Matthijs is really strong at corners,” said the Holland midfielder Davy Propper, but offers an excuse for the international opponents who keep letting him slip by their markers: It happened to Germany in March, now to England. “Most teams will look at Virgil Van Dijk and this time Virgil was the decoy for Matthijs to steal the free space.”
A fine double-act they are, the older-than-his years De Ligt, and the costliest defender in history, Liverpool's €85 million (Dh354m) Van Dijk. He and his young partner can certainly expect to be kept busy in Porto: the A-list duel of the final is theirs against Cristiano Ronaldo and Bernardo Silva, up front for Portugal.
Elsewhere, there are less superstarry, but intriguing storylines. Propper has just finished a season with Brighton and Hove Albion which steered away from relegation only on the penultimate day of the English Premier League. Ryan Babel, senior man in the Holland squad, did go down, at the end of his six-month stint with doomed Fulham.
Both are thrilled to have had a part in Holland’s rebuild. “We are slowly coming back to the level we belong,” said Babel, 32. “This is a big, serious test after the past few years, when Holland has not been in big tournaments.
"We have a lot of young players and when I compare them to when I was their age, these players take so much responsibility. De Ligt made a mistake against England. Normally that can affect a young player's confidence, but he carried on doing the same things we asked him to, and in the end made up for his mistake.”
Three years ago, Babel was playing - or often not playing - at Al Ain. Twelve months ago, Portugal’s Jose Fonte, 35, was coming to the end of an unhappy spell in China. These two much-travelled veterans should anticipate a few direct confrontations, with Fonte likely to step into the Portugal line-up in place of the injured Pepe.
Fonte, now of Lille, regards his international career, which only started in the lead-up to Portugal’s stunning triumph at Euro 2016, as a belated bonus. Like Babel, he is delighted to play the wise chaperone to what he calls “so many quality young players coming through. It’s up to us to make them feel comfortable, tell them to express themselves.”
No one needs instruct Ronaldo in that. Nor should anybody need to instruct the Portuguese, when they concede their first corner, to keep an eye on the leaping De Ligt.
Published: June 8, 2019 06:28 PM