Dutch eye last-16 spot amid ongoing debate over playing style

Amsterdam (AFP) –


While the Netherlands has been consumed by a debate about what formation the national team should play at Euro 2020, Frank de Boer's side already stand on the brink of a place in the last 16 on their return to a major tournament.

The Dutch and their iconic orange shirts had been absent from this level for seven years since the 2014 World Cup but they marked their return with a 3-2 win over Ukraine in Amsterdam last weekend.

In front of a crowd of almost 16,000 which included King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima, De Boer's side grabbed victory thanks to a late goal by flying wing-back Denzel Dumfries.

It was their first win at a European Championship since 2008 and another victory against Austria at the Johan Cruyff Arena in Group C on Thursday will ensure a place in the knockout rounds.

Still, in the land of 4-3-3, the debate swirls about De Boer's decision to switch to a 3-5-2 coming into the Euro, even if that enabled PSV Eindhoven's Dumfries to cause havoc down the right against Ukraine.

"I can't protect the players from what everyone is saying around the country but we are trying to achieve something and focus on this and not on public opinions," De Boer said on Wednesday.

"We just want to live from game to game and we have only played one game so far."

De Boer knows all about the scrutiny -- the Dutch are co-hosts of a Euro for the first time since 2000 when he captained them to an agonising defeat on penalties in the semi-final against Italy.

Ahead of the Ukraine game a plane flew over the squad's training base in Zeist with the message: "Frank, play a 4-3-3".

- De Ligt back -

Whether he sticks to his guns against Austria, De Boer confirmed Juventus defender Matthijs de Ligt will return after sitting out the Ukraine game with a groin problem.

"De Ligt will play, no doubt about it," De Boer confirmed.

Who drops out remains to be seen. Stefan de Vrij of Inter Milan started with Ajax duo Daley Blind and Jurrien Timber at the back against Ukraine.

"Matthijs is a top defender so it's up to the coach," said De Vrij this week.

The main men in De Boer's team are elsewhere, from Frenkie de Jong and Georginio Wijnaldum in midfield to Memphis Depay up front.

Meanwhile 38-year-old veteran Maarten Stekelenburg is set to continue in goal after becoming the oldest player ever to represent the Netherlands at a major tournament.

He is filling in for Jasper Cillessen, who was left out of the squad after testing positive for Covid-19 before the tournament.

"If you'd asked me at the beginning of the season if I'd have been first choice at the European Championship I'd have laughed at you," said Stekelenburg, who played in the 2010 World Cup final.

He took advantage of a doping ban to Ajax first-choice goalkeeper Andre Onana to get regular game time with his club this season.

"This is like the cherry on top," he added.

On Thursday he will be facing an Austrian side missing Marko Arnautovic, who has been given a one-game ban by UEFA for insulting a North Macedonian player in their 3-1 win in Bucharest.

That was Austria's first ever win at the Euro and now they too know a victory in Amsterdam will take them through to the last 16.

"We won our first match which was very important and now we have to build on that," said Austria's German coach Franco Foda, who admitted he had been considering handing a start to Arnautovic.

"The Netherlands are the favourites. They have changed their system to a 5-3-2, they have a compact and flexible team who attack well but they can also park the bus.

"They have a great team but we are confident."