Portugal faced Netherlands in the final of the inaugural UEFA Nations League. The Netherlands had failed to qualify for the FIFA World Cup 2018 and UEFA Euro 2016, but they had been revitalized since Ronald Koeman took charge.
Reigning European champions Portugal were still managed by Fernando Santos, who was the architect of their Euro 2016 triumph. They were unbeaten since losing to Uruguay in Sochi 2018.
There have been some memorable matches between these two countries since the turn of the century. The Euro 2004 semi-final in Lisbon where Portugal had triumphed 2-1 against the Netherlands. A young Cristiano Ronaldo had scored that night.
But the most riveting contest between these two great footballing nations was played at the FIFA World Cup 2006 in Germany. It was a round of 16 clash which Portugal had won 1-0 but the match is remembered for other reasons.
The match saw four red cards and 16 yellow cards, and is known as the ‘Battle of Nuremberg’. Former Porto and Atletico Madrid midfielder Maniche scored the winner in both the matches. So, quite some history between them as they looked to write a new tale in a new era.
Much of the pre-match talk was about the unstoppable force of Cristiano Ronaldo being up against the immovable object, Virgil van Dijk. The Netherlands had ousted England in the semi-finals and unsurprisingly they fielded an unchanged side.
Whereas for Portugal, Jose Fonte came in place of their most experienced defender Pepe, who was ruled out due to an injury. Joao Felix was demoted to the bench as Goncalo Guedes replaced him.
The Dutch were playing in their unfamiliar blue kits. Bruno Fernandes had the first shot of the match in the 12th minute with William Carvalho trying to get a touch on it. Fernandes had another shot around the half-hour mark that tested Jasper Cillessen.
Van Dijk marshalled the Dutch defence with Matthijs de Ligt, who was playing his last match as a teenager, partnering him. They managed to keep the Portuguese at bay. It was goalless at half-time but Portugal had several attempts on goal.
In the second half, Portugal carried on from where they left off. They were dominating the match and were finally rewarded when Bernardo Silva found Guedes in the box, who lashed it in the 60th-minute mark to give Portugal a deserved lead. This was the 22-year-old Valencia forward’s fourth international goal, his first in a competitive match and what an occasion to get it.
The Dutch looked for a response and Memphis Depay headed straight into the arms of well-positioned Rui Patricio in the Portuguese goal. The Netherlands started to have more of the ball in the Portuguese half but Jose Fonte, filling in the boots of Pepe, defended stoutly along with his centre-back partner Ruben Dias.
The Oranje who boasted two Champions League winners in their ranks, Van Dijk and Georginio Wijnaldum, gradually looked frustrated as the clock ticked on. Frustrations got the better off Denzel Dumfries who was shown a yellow card in the 88th minute. Scarcely believable, it was the first booking of the match. This was the last match of referee Alberto Undiano Mallenco. The Spaniard did a good job as he did not try to be in the spotlight.
Ruben Neves came on to irritate the Dutch and ate off the final few seconds of the match. The referee blew the final whistle shortly as Portugal were crowned champions of the inaugural edition of the UEFA Nations League. The Dutch were defeated in their first major final since 2010.
Cristiano Ronaldo added yet another feather in his cap at the Estadio do Dragao. He had scored his first international goal at this stadium and now lifted Portugal’s second major trophy in four years at the Dragao.
This victory certainly meant a lot to the people as it helped erase some pain of Angelos Charisteas’ notorious goal in 2004. The Portuguese party in Porto on the eve of the Portugal Day had already started.