England denied Uefa Nations League final by VAR then defensive calamities

Updated: 27/03/2023


So near yet so VAR for England, in a night that went from De Ligt to disaster.

They thought they had won their Nations League semi-final against the Netherlands late on when Jesse Lingard was played through by Jordan Henderson and slotted in. Lingard ran into the corner, surrounded by his team-mates, the crowd were wild, the Dutch set up to restart the game from the centre. And then the dreaded VAR check flashed on the big screens and the ref’s hand went to his ear.

If Lingard was offside, it was by finest of margins. More centimetres than inches. Is this what football has come to: analysed to death, goals ruled out because the toe of a boot is the wrong side of the defender? Is that why the rule was invented?

The goal was ruled out nonetheless and the game went to extra time and then England were to blame for their own undoing. John Stones lost the ball on the edge of his own penalty area — a defender’s greatest sin — Memphis Depay’s shot was saved superbly by Jordan Pickford but as Kyle Walker chased back to prevent a rebound goal he sent the ball into his own net.

Then Ross Barkley decided to pass the ball straight to Depay instead of Pickford and he nipped the ball across to Quincy Promes to score.

Antisocial behaviour

It was a good job England’s fans had been off the booze for so long by then and were on the wane after a day of more drunken antisocial behaviour, setting their sights on Guimarães after two nights of disruption in Porto.

There was a nasty edge to the raucous atmosphere. From the way they booed and jeered and flicked wanker signs at the Dutch national anthem to the refusal to stop standing against barriers despite repeated requests from stewards. They even struggled to make it through the minute’s silence in tribute to former Uefa president Lennart Johansson, who died this week aged 89, so the 60 seconds played out to the awkward backdrop of fans shushing other fans and some yelling at others to shut up.

They had swarmed into the quaint streets and squares of Guimarães during the day. The torrential rainfall dispersed the angry wasps nests that had formed in Porto, but still they jumped in fountains and jumped on top of cars and caused riot police to charge at them.

In the stadium, armed police waited alertly on the terrace roofs. It all added the sense that something could happen at any moment. Something bad.

In some ways, it wasn’t such a bad thing that the lacklustre start to the game took the sting out of the occasion.

Captain Sterling

As revealed by Raheem Sterling’s PR agency on Tuesday night, the Manchester City forward captained the side on the night he won his 50th cap, meaning Harry Kane and Henderson started on the bench. Gareth Southgate chose to rest all of the Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur players who joined up late with the squad after contesting the Champions League final.

It also  meant Jadon Sancho — the 19-year-old Borussia Dortmund sensation — earned another start and produced another impressive performance until he was replaced by Lingard on 61 minutes, displaying the agility and slender toes of a leading ballerina when he plucked a high ball from the air, and arguably should’ve scored his first England goal when Fabian Delph swung in a cross and he leapt between defenders but headed too close to Dutch goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen.

England had not had a shot on target and the Netherlands were looking the better side — controlling more of the ball — in the first half-an-hour before Matthijs de Ligt handed them the lead.

De Ligt — the 19-year-old Ajax captain who will move to a European giant this summer — is the defender everyone is talking about yet he showed there is still some inexperience that will need ironing out if he is to live up to the hype.

De Ligt miscontrol

His awful miscontrol in his own penalty area allowed Marcus Rashford to dart in and De Ligt could only trip the Manchester United striker as he desperately tried to make amends. In Kane’s absence, Rashford carefully tucked away the penalty.

But Rashford was forced off at half-time, replaced by Kane. Rashford had been slipped through by Sancho but delayed for a fraction too long and Denzel Dumfries crunched him firmly but fairly. He struggled through to the break but could not continue.

Virgil Van Dijk learned the price of his success with every touch of the ball. A colossus lauded in the Premier League, he was booed loudly by a good majority of England supporters every time he was on the ball, which increased into the second half as the Netherlands began to hoover up possession.

They got the equaliser they deserved and De Ligt some retribution. A corner came in and he beat Walker to thunder in a header at the near post.

In fairness to England, they regained composure and in a VAR-less world Lingard sends them into the Nations League final. Instead, their fate was decided by less than an inch.

This post first appeared here

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