Nations League Semi-Final
Holland 3 England 1 (after extra time)
Gareth Southgate’s dream of unlocking the doors to a new era for hungry young trophy-winners fell away in a manner all-too reminiscent of last year’s World Cup semi-final.
As against Croatia, England got themselves in front. Once again they allowed the game to slip from their grasp all too easily.
They arguably came much closer to glory this time, with only a VAR decision denying them what appeared to be a winner seven minutes from the end of normal time.
But they were undone by periods of passivity and some rank-bad defending – the worst of which cost them the game – John Stones the player whose catastrophic dithering invited the decisive second goal.
There was nobody with the authority of Virgil van Dijk within the England ranks. The Liverpool man was inexplicably booed by England fans throughout. Presumably for being too good,
In fairness, it was very nearly a different script. Sub Jesse Lingard thought he had put England into Sunday’s Nations League final against Portugal when he tucked home what appeared to be a perfect through ball from Jordan Henderson.
Unluckily for him and the jubilant England fans massed behind the goal where the Man United midfielder had netted, the on-field officials were over-ruled. As the players lined up at the centre circle to restart, VAR gurus concluded that Lingard was offside by the tiniest of margins.
Marcus Rashford’s penalty after half an hour, courtesy of a blunder by Ajax star Matthijs de Ligt, looked for a long time as if just might be enough to settle the outcome.
But de Light atoned by powering home a corner to the near post after 73 minutes to tie things up again.
De Ligt, one of the mainstays of Ajax’s great run to the Champions League semi-finals this season, gifted England a lead they barely deserved after 31 minutes - the defender trying to make amends for lost possession by lunging at the ball as Rashford nipped in.
Ref Clement Turpin pointed to the spot, but only gave de Ligt a yellow, when it might have been red.
Rashford went close to adding a second not long after – played in by Jadon Sancho. It needed a great last-ditch covering tackle by Denzel Dumfries to deny the Manchester United striker.
Southgate’s men had not started well. An error by Harry Maguire – one of many made by the off-colour Leicester City man, offered a sniff of a chance for Steven Bergwijn, cutting in from the right flank to try his luck with a low left footer. Jordan Pickford was equal to it.
And the England keeper got everything behind another low effort from the other side of the box from Memphis Depay. But it suggested an evening of graft and serious defending would be needed, especially from Pickford, who had far too many shots to save.
England raised the tempo at the start of the second half and almost doubled their lead when Sancho headed a left wing cross from Fabian Delph straight at the keeper, when presented with a clear target.
But it was a Dutch head which found the net on 73 minutes, when de Ligt rose at the near post above Kyle Walker and Stones to power a Depay corner into the bottom corner.
Lingard struck after a backheel from Sterling gave Henderson the room he needed to squeeze a perfect through pass to his fellow sub. It looked a fitting finale for England but it was not to be.
Harry Kane, on for Rashford at half time, shot narrowly wide on the turn and Raheem Sterling clipped the top of the bar as England finished the stronger of the two sides ahead of extra time.
But on 97 minutes, England’s house came crashing down when Stones dithered on the ball, allowing Depay to dispossess him and open up the entire goal. Pickford did superbly to save, but sub Quincy Promes bundled in the rebound off the leg of Walker.
It should have been game over moments later, but Pickford made a superb instinctive save to keep out Depay’s close-range header. It prolonged hope for a little longer, but only a little.
England’s play became sloppier if anything, and six minutes from time, it was Ross Barkley’s turn to gift a goal – the Chelsea man’s mishit allowing Depay to square the ball for Promes to tuck into an empty net.
Line-up: Pickford – Walker, Stones, Maguire, Chilwell – Rice (Alli 106), Delph (Henderson 77), Barkley – Sancho (Lingard 61), Rashford (Kane h/t), Sterling. Subs not used: Butland, Heaton, Rose, Dier, Gomez, Keane, Wilson, Alexander-Arnold.