European teams’ preparations for Euro 2016 continue in full swing with another handful of friendly matches on Friday evening (25th March). Scanning the fixture list, two matches stand out to my mind for differing reasons.
Netherlands vs. France
Firstly, the clash between the Netherlands and France in Amsterdam initially appears the highest profile of the lot, featuring as it does two of European and indeed world football’s strongest nations. And yet, the intrigue in this match is that on this occasion it features the upcoming host nation on one side, heading into the tournament without a competitive fixture since the 2014 World Cup, and on the other a giant not so much fallen into a slumber but apparently comatose.
The decline of the Netherlands national team, third place finishers at the last World Cup let’s not forget, is as dramatic as it is unfathomable. Failing to qualify even for the playoffs for this summer’s European Championships – a feat that required finishing outside the top three places in their eminently winnable qualifying group – was the shock that wasn’t supposed to be able to happen anymore in Europe’s newly bloated Euros.
That it did happen is worthy of study in its own right as a campaign that was heading in the wrong direction under Guus Hiddink couldn’t be resurrected by Danny Blind. No matter who was in charge, the team lurched from one disappointing showing to another as the likes of van Persie, Huntelaar and Sneijder failed to live up to the reputations they had built up in their younger days. The loss of Arjen Robben to injury for a lengthy period hardly helped matters, but it had the feeling of the old guard hoping for one last hurrah only to belatedly realize they themselves were no longer the solution but the problem.
For the Dutch, the path to redemption means focusing on the World Cup qualification next autumn. In the meantime, the motivation is surely to demonstrate just what the tournament will be missing out on this summer. And what better way to demonstrate that than against the French.
There is no Robin van Persie in this squad, and no Robben either, although his absence is down to injury rather than non-selection. Also missing are Gregory van der Wiel and Maarten Stekelenburg as Danny Blind has opted to freshen the squad with a bit more youth. A first call-up for 21-year-old AZ Alkmaar forward Vincent Janssen in indicative of this, although Wesley Sneijder’s inclusion shows that not everything has changed.
It will be interesting to see how the new look squad is coming together against a France side that is still missing Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema. The striker is still excluded for non-footballing reasons, meaning his participation in the summer’s finals are now in severe doubt. Premier League fans will want to check out the progress of two new call-ups to Les Bleus as Leicester City’s N’Golo Kante and West Ham’s Dimitri Payet reap the rewards of their hugely impressive club form with international honours.
While the Netherlands’ recent form is sketchy, to say the least, the WGF rankings make this clash quite a close call once we adjust for home advantage, with the ratings showing less than a goal between them. If the Dutch could secure at least a draw, it might signal a step on the road to recovery after the shambles that had gone before.
Ireland vs. Switzerland
The other match that caught my eye is between Ireland and Switzerland – two of Europe’s middle tier, in terms of common perception at least. However, in terms of the calculations for the We Global Football rankings, they are two of Europe’s strongest given their recent results, with barely a whisker between them in their score projections meaning a draw would be the predicted outcome.
While both teams were bettered over the course of their qualifying campaigns by other teams – Poland and England respectively, who both sit even higher in the WGF calculations – a string of fine results have left Ireland and Switzerland boasting more than decent recent form.
The intrigue, therefore, lies in which of the two can carry this form forwards as the European Championships start to loom larger on the horizon. It is the Swiss who, I would argue, have the greater pedigree in terms of playing talent – Xherdan Shaqiri, Granit Xhaka, Stefan Lichtsteiner for instance – and recent success. They reached the second round of the 2014 World Cup only to narrowly lose to Angel Di Maria’s late late winner for eventual finalists Argentina, deep into extra-time.
But it is the Irish who have developed, or perhaps rediscovered, the knack of performing above themselves. A team that is greater than the sum of its parts. Under the managerial duo of Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane, Ireland navigated the hardest of qualifying groups before comfortably overcoming Bosnia in the playoffs to reach their second successive Euro finals.
If they are to improve on their showing in 2012, then building towards the tournament with a good showing against a strong Swiss side will be a good indicator of progress.