The De Kuip stadium in Rotterdam hosted the first semifinal of only the third edition of the UEFA Nations League. The Netherlands would face Croatia, with the two teams having only ever faced off against each other on three prior occasions – this would be the first time since 2008.
Coming into the game, the Netherlands ranked sixth in the FIFA world rankings while Croatia sat one spot behind them in seventh. They had both had their World Cup dreams ruined by a rampant Lionel Messi in the winter, and both nations were hoping to move past that loss by winning their own silverware in the coming week.
NED: Bijlow; Ake, Van Dijk, Geertruida, Dumfries; De Jong, Wieffer; Simons, Koopmeiners, Malen; Gakpo
CRO: Livakovic; Perisic, Vida, Sutalo, Juranovic; Kovacic, Brozovic, Modric; Ivanusec, Kramaric, Pasalic
It was a slow start from both countries: the possession was safe and pressing was limited. It was clear that neither side wanted to give anything away to their opponents, as they showed great respect to the star power on display from their opposition.
Perhaps it was nerves, perhaps it was fatigue, or perhaps it was just an off-day for the two starting elevens – but there was a severe lack of inspiration in the opening half hour. The game was being played at a very slow pace, and at a standard far below that of which the players on the pitch have the potential of producing.
34 minutes in, however, the only moment of real quality in the first half was produced. After winning the ball back high up the pitch, Nathan Ake found himself in possession on the left hand side. He played an excellent pass through the lines to Mats Wieffer in the Croatian eighteen-yard box, and in a show of fantastic composure, he then laid the ball off to Donyell Malen on his right hand side. The Dortmund forward then shifted the ball onto his right foot, and fired a shot across goal to pick out the bottom corner.
In a very tightly contested 45 minutes, it was this one emphatic attack which ensured the hosts leId at the break. But as we have seen on so many occasions in the last five years, it is not in the Croatian DNA to lie down for an opponent. They never quit, they never lose hope, and they certainly never believe a game is lost.
Out of nowhere, Luke Modric nipped in to dispossess Cody Gakpo and he tried to break away. On the wrong side of his opponent, the forward grabbed and pulled the Real Madrid midfielder, dragging him to the ground. There was no hesitation from the referee, and a penalty was given. Andrej Kramaric, who had been kept quiet up until this point, stepped up and calmly placed the ball down the middle of the goal, levelling the game.
The Croatian squad were not satisfied with going level, however, and it was clear that they wanted more. Their immense footballing experience and wisdom was on display, as in the 72nd minute they completed their comeback.
Luka Ivanušec gained possession on the left hand side of the Netherlands penalty box and looked for options in the middle. He put in a cross, low and hard into the middle of the area, finding Mario Pašalic, who had drifted free of any Dutch defenders. The forward latched onto the cross, firing a volley into the bottom corner past Justin Bijlow in the net.
With the Dutch players becoming more desperate and throwing everything at the Croatian defence, the final fifteen minutes saw an unrelenting attack come face-to-face with a defiant defence. For so long the hosts were unsuccessful in their endeavours, and it seemed as though the Croatians had once again found a way to grind out a result against the odds.
It was now the turn of the Netherlands to showcase their heart and desire, however, as a moment of magic saved the game for them in the dying moments. As had been the case for the previous fifteen minutes, the ball was launched into the box – but this time Croatia were unable to clear. It deflected a few times before dropping perfectly at the feet of substitute Noa Lang. His eyes lit up as the opportunity to prevent defeat for his country presented itself. In a moment of madness, he kept his cool, and fired the rebound into the Croatian net, sending the game to extra time.
Unfortunately for the neutral, the drama of a game usually dies down in extra time as both teams have penalties in their sights, and this was the case in this semi final – for seven minutes. Bruno Petkovic picked the ball up around thirty yards out, turning to drive at the Dutch defence. There was no pressure put on him, so he launched an effort at goal. His strike was pure, his technique impeccable, and the ball curled past Bijlow to make it 3-2.
With their second attempt at seeing out a lead, Croatia were a lot more successful. Chances were conceded – Lang missed a golden opportunity from close range and Livakovic was called into action – but a late penalty gave them a chance to double their lead. The face of Croatian football, the five-time Champions League winner, Luka Modric, burdened the responsibility and took the perfect penalty.
This time there was no late comeback, no late drama. Croatia’s golden generation reach another final, defying expectations once more. They will face either Spain or Italy in the final on the Sunday, where they hope to secure Croatia’s first piece of silverware in their history.