By Simon Evans
PORTO, Portugal (Reuters) – Inevitably the focus ahead of Nations League final has been on the battle between Cristiano Ronaldo and Virgil van Dijk but it is arguably two quality midfielders who hold the key to Sunday’s game.
Dutch midfielder Frenkie de Jong and Portuguese playmaker Bernardo Silva might not go head-to-head too often at the Dragao Stadium but the issue of which one is able to dictate the terms of the game will be central to the outcome.
While the hat-trick from Ronaldo in Portugal’s 3-1 win over Switzerland in Wednesday’s semi-final has heightened the anticipation of his encounter with the outstanding central defender Van Dijk, there is unlikely to be many direct confrontations.
Indeed, the mantra from the Dutch camp has been that they are not playing Ronaldo but facing a very good Portuguese team.
“They are a great team, a mixture of experienced and young guys and with a very cool way of approaching a match and making a goal out of nothing,” said Dutch skipper Daley Blind.
That coolness so often comes from Manchester City midfielder Silva.
Whether he plays on the right wing, as he usually does for his club manager Pep Guardiola, in central midfield or at the tip of a diamond, as in the win over Switzerland, Silva is the creative force for the home side.
Guardiola has described Silva as the best player in the Premier League this past season, saying “he does everything with the ball… making decisions, how he fights, reading the movements offensively and defensively, the way he ‘lives’ the game”, and it is the last of those points that is so impressive.
He has the intuition to be able to anticipate situations and know when to change the speed of the game and put the opposition quickly on the back-foot.
While they are very different players, Dutch midfielder De Jong also has the crucial ability to dictate the tempo of a game, as he showed in such impressive fashion in Thursday’s 3-1 (aet) win over England.
Silva’s work is mainly done in the final third, often on the right flank, whereas De Jong operates in a deeper, central midfield role, but such his is range of passing and his accuracy that he, too, can suddenly create openings for his attackers.
But as Netherlands manager Ronald Koeman was quick to point out after the game, there is another, less eye-catching but nonetheless crucial side to his game.
“Most of the people are looking at what he does with the ball, how calm he is, but in defence how many balls he is winning in midfield? It’s fantastic to see Frenkie play like this. It looks so easy but it isn’t,” he said.
Former Italy international Andrea Pirlo, one of the finest midfielders of recent times, had a succinct description: “He reminds me of me.”
After an impressive season with Ajax, reaching the semi-finals of the Champions League, next season De Jong will join the illustrious list of Dutch players to wear the shirt of Barcelona.
With Silva set to be at the heart of Manchester City’s attempt to turn their domestic dominance into a serious bid for the Champions League title, we can expect to see the pair featuring in many crucial battles across the continent in coming seasons.
Ronaldo could be the match-winner again, or perhaps Van Dijk will deliver another masterclass to nullify his threat, but the pattern of the game is going to be determined by Silva and De Jong and it will be fascinating to see who prevails.
(Reporting by Simon Evans; editing by Tony Lawrence)