When the Netherlands walk into the Stade de Lyon on Sunday to face the United States with the 2019 Women’s World Cup on the line, they will start the clash as considerable outsiders.
The Americans are the unrivalled heavyweights of women’s football. Their worst-ever finish at the World Cup is third-place. They are three-time champions and have won four Olympic gold medals. In women’s football, there is the USA, and everybody else.
But, football is all about overcoming the odds. The Netherlands are in the World Cup final just four years after making their tournament debut. If they can come all this way in such a short amount of time, why can’t they go one further and knock the United States off their perch?
Here are five reasons why we are optimistic about a Dutch upset on Sunday.
1. They haven’t played that well, and are still in the final
Parallels can be drawn between the Dutch run to the final in France and the Spanish men’s national team in 2010. Both teams entered highly-fancied, known for their silky attacking football.
Both teams suffered an early scare – the Spanish losing to Switzerland in their opening match in South Africa, the Dutch coming within 2 minutes of being held by New Zealand (before a late Jill Roord winner saved their blushes).
Both sides then laboured through the group stage and early knock-out rounds. In 2010, Spain secured five of their six victories with a one-goal margin. In France, the Dutch have won four of their six encounters by a lone goal – and the two matches they won by more both involved a late second goal.
The parallel is slightly ironic given Spain then saw off this Dutch side’s male counterparts in the final.
But, the lesson from 2010 is that sometimes a good team needs to win ugly to win the World Cup. If it worked for the Spanish, it might well work for the Dutch.
2. Goalkeeper van Veenendaal is in form
She may be out of favour at club level, recently being released by Arsenal, but Sari van Veenendaal put in a tremendous performance between the posts on Wednesday to keep the Dutch in their semi-final encounter with Sweden.
Van Veenendaal pulled off several world-class saves, including an athletic lunge to tip a Swedish shot onto the post. If it wasn’t for van Veenendaal, the Americans would almost certainly be facing Sweden on Sunday.
Which is doubly good news for the Dutch, because they will need their custodian in top form to have any chance against America. The USA have scored double the number of goals than the second-top scoring team in France.
Even if that statistic is somewhat skewed by the battering of Thailand, it is an apt indication of the ability of America’s forward-line. But for Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan and co to add to their individual tallies, they will have to get past van Veenendaal – no easy task.
3. They have attacking potency in spades
The American attack may be feted, but the Dutch forward line isn’t bad either. The Netherlands typically play an attacking trident, with Arsenal’s Vivianne Miedema leading the line, while Lieke Martens and Shanice van de Sanden cut inside from either wing.
Question marks remain over the line-up for Sunday. 22-year-old prodigy Lineth Beerensteyn started in the semi-final in van de Sanden’s place, while Martens is battling a foot injury and was withdrawn at half-time. But after three days’ rest, it seems probable that the usual trio will start.
Miedema, Martens and van de Sanden haven’t collectively been at their fluid best during the tournament. But, each has the technical ability and creative flair to cause the Americans headaches.
When they are all singing the same tune, it is a joy to watch. What better place to rediscover their harmony than on the grandest stage of all.
4. The pressure is off
The weight of a nation’s expectations burdens the American players. The Dutch, meanwhile, have surpassed the hopes of even the most optimistic Oranje fan. This will give the Netherlands a mental edge on Sunday, an ability to play without fear knowing that even defeat in Lyon would be a triumph.
For the Americans, anything less than victory would be humiliating.
“We love being the underdogs – it’s the best role to be in,” admitted Dutch midfielder Daniëlle van de Donk. “I don’t think [the USA] think we’re that good. I hope that is going to be an advantage.”
The Americans have also shown an unusual tendency in recent matches to sit back after taking the lead. Against England, the United States shifted to a five-woman back-line in the closing stages of the game.
Desperately defending a one-goal lead with more than a few minutes to go is a recipe for disaster and an odd approach from a team of supposed world beaters. That should give the Dutch confidence.
5. They have a badass coach
Dutch coach Sarina Wiegman suffers no fools, nor intrepid journalists. When yours truly asked the manager if she was surprised to see her team in the semi-final after they had beaten Italy last weekend, she glared at me. “The word proud is more suitable than surprised,” she spat.
After an illustrious playing career that included over 100 national team caps, Wiegman began her coaching career in 2006. She joined the Dutch national team just under a decade later, first as an assistant and then at the helm – guiding Holland to their 2017 European Championships and now their debut World Cup final.
The steely Wiegman will not be phased by their match-up against heavyweights. Earlier in the tournament, she declared: “I don’t care who we play against.” Most coaches make similar utterances – but Wiegman’s tone suggested she meant it.
The Dutch mean business in France, and guided by their sagely manager they have every chance of upsetting the Americans on Sunday.