Wednesday 02 January 2019, 22:22

Oranje back to looking onwards and upwards

  • Netherlands eyeing big year after swerving 2018 collapse

  • Start 2019 in their highest ranking spot, as they did a year ago

  • Focus now on Women’s World Cup after play-off triumph

In many ways, 2019 is starting much like the last year for the Netherlands’s Oranje Lionesses. They begin January sat seventh in the FIFA/Coca-Cola Women's Ranking, arguably just on the fringes of the world’s elite.

However, their eyes are now trained on maximising the fruits of 2018’s sometimes bumpy labour. Having held their nerve when the excitement and expectation garnered from earning their European crown could so easily have been squandered, the Netherlands now hold dreams of achieving something great in 2019.

Despite racking up 33 goals in 12 competitive games, while conceding only 12, it could easily have been a year to forget – defined by a nightmare two minutes at the business end of FIFA Women’s World Cup France 2019™ qualifying.

A point was all they needed in Oslo, but by the sixth minute they were already 2-0 down and unseating Norway proved too much to ask. Over a million fans forlornly watched on their TV sets in the Netherlands, a sign of the rapid growth the women’s game has enjoyed in the country.

But Sarina Wiegman, a winner and a finalist in the last two The Best FIFA Women’s Coach awards, has crafted a side which is able to hold its nerve. Successive 4-1 aggregate triumphs over Denmark – in a UEFA Women’s EURO final re-run – and Switzerland belatedly secured their spot in the hat for France.

Netherlands’s qualifiers in 2018

  • Won 7-0 & 5-0 vs Northern Ireland

  • Won 2-0 vs Republic of Ireland (A)

  • Won 1-0 vs Slovakia (H)

  • Lost 2-1 vs Norway (A)

  • Won 2-0 & 2-1 vs Denmark

  • Won 3-0 & drew 1-1 vs Switzerland

Now, Wiegman feels the Netherlands will be right “at home” there and onlookers are rubbing their hands with anticipation. Vera Pauw led the Lionesses from the dugout for six years but the upper reaches of the women’s game – despite narrowly missing out on the EURO 2009 final – and the Women’s World Cup were always just out of reach, believing the generations “are not comparable” considering today’s quality.

Now, set for back-to-back bows on the global stage following their 2015 debut, she’s a fan full of hope. “I expect the Netherlands to be very successful at the World Cup," she said, putting them among the gaggle of front-runners at the global finals.

Being drawn in an eclectic group featuring Canada, Cameroon and New Zealand, one of their most senior figures is feeling bright about how they’re shaping up. “We have taken some very big steps in the last two years, we have shown that we are a top side,” Anouk Dekker reflected, having been yet to enter the top ten of the women’s ranking prior to 2017 – with seventh still their high-water mark.

While there’s plenty of individual talent – three players scored more than five in qualifying, while no other European side had more than two reach that tally – the collective is what inspires the Montpellier midfielder most. “In some countries you see players with many individual qualities, but they do not form a team. We do, we can really rely on each other. Everything will be possible [at the World Cup].”

Sherida Spitse, who is just three caps shy of the all-time Dutch record of 156, concurs, with mutual respect giving them a harmony that she believes will provide the foundations to succeed in France. “By creating trust in each other and in ourselves we’ve created peace. We know what we can do."

Having found such success two years ago on home soil, they may even have the chance to recreate that same fervent atmosphere that saw them blossom spectacularly. "The European Championships unleashed a lot and we need that support now, without the fans we cannot do it,” Shanice van de Sanden explained.

Perfect in that case, as Valenciennes, Reims and Le Havre are no more than a six-hour drive from the Dutch border – while just over two for their clash with Cameroon at the former's Stade du Hainaut. "The cities are perfect to make it an Oranje summer again,” said Van de Sanden.

They may not get the chance to recover from any bumps in the road like the one suffered in Oslo, but having almost seen their 2019 hopes crash before they even began, perhaps surviving that scare will provide the focus they need to see the Lionesses roar on Final Day in Lyon.