BUDAPEST, Hungary — As Patrik Schick raced away to celebrate the goal that sealed the Czech Republic’s 2-0 win against the Netherlands and a Euro 2020 quarterfinal date with Denmark, Dutch coach Frank de Boer gave a wistful look on the touchline – if only his team had a striker as reliable as the Bayer Leverkusen forward.
De Boer has succeeded in making the Netherlands relevant again by guiding them out of the group stage at Euro 2020 in the country’s first major tournament since Louis van Gaal’s team reached the semifinals at the 2014 World Cup, but this humbling defeat in Budapest was a reality check for the Oranje.
Coasting through arguably the easiest group at the tournament by winning all three games against Ukraine, Austria and North Macedonia perhaps gave many a false impression of the distance the Dutch have travelled under De Boer. Yes, they have bright young talent with Frenkie de Jong, Matthijs de Ligt and Donyell Malen — all of whom made tournament debuts in this competition. Denzel Dumfries, at 25, is another who will expect to be around at Qatar 2022 and Euro 2024 in Germany. But unless the Dutch can unearth a striker like Schick, who took his Euro 2020 tally to four goals in four games with his 80th-minute strike in the Puskas Arena, they will not be a serious contender 2022 or 2024.
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They also have issues in goal, where the 38-year-old Maarten Stekelenburg is long past his best, but Valencia’s Jasper Cillessen — ruled out of this competition because of a positive COVID-19 test — and Norwich City’s Tim Krul will at least give De Boer a top-level keeper playing regular first-team football in the months and years ahead.
There is no world-class goal scorer available to De Boer, though, and that is hurting the Dutch. Had they been able to call upon one of their greats of yesteryear — Marco van Basten, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Robin van Persie, Patrick Kluivert and many more — the Netherlands would have won this round-of-16 tie comfortably.
Malen missed their best chance on 52 minutes when, after being released by a Memphis Depay flick, he burst through the Czech defence and left himself one-on-one with goalkeeper Tomas Vaclik. It was the type of chance that his illustrious predecessors would have buried, but Malen delayed his shot and it was enough for Vaclik to block his effort before smothering Depay’s follow-up.
Key moments turn big games, and Malen’s miss proved extremely costly less than a minute later when De Ligt was sent off after VAR informed referee Sergei Karasev that the Juventus defender had handled the ball as the last defender when under pressure from Schick. Schick was fortunate not to give away a free kick for initially fouling De Ligt, but his persistence earned the set piece and also led to the Dutch being forced to play for more than half an hour without their best defender.
That was another element of his impressive performance. Schick scores goals, but he also pressures defenders and makes things happen. None of the Dutch forwards has shown an ability to do the same.
De Ligt’s absence from the defence was evident on 68 minutes when the Dutch failed to deal with an Antonin Barak free kick and left Tomas Kalas to win a header at the back post and direct it to Tomas Holes, who headed in at the other post to put the Czechs ahead.
From that point on, the Dutch played as though they were running through quicksand. The Czechs looked fitter, more powerful and more determined. While the loss of De Ligt didn’t help the Dutch, it was not the sole reason for the manner in which they faded in stifling temperatures in the Hungarian capital. Their downfall was caused by their own shortcomings and failure to take advantage of early chances.
But when they reflect on this tournament, the Dutch will know that they went into it without their best keeper — Cillessen — and their defensive leader in Virgil van Dijk. With those two back for the World Cup qualifying campaign, the Netherlands will expect to top a group in which Turkey and Norway are the only potential obstacles — even without a striker.
If Depay settles in at Barcelona following his summer move from Lyon, the former Manchester United forward may become an attacking option in a central role, but De Boer will still want, and need, a player like Schick. He is the primary reason why the Czech Republic will believe they can go to Baku and beyond next week. If he continues to score, the Czechs will be favourites to beat Denmark and make it to the semis.
That’s how important a top quality striker can be.