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Nations League: Netherlands tries to cap unlikely turnaround

Netherlands coach Ronald Koeman watches up during a training session at their training ground in Braga, Portugal, Saturday, June 8, 2019. Netherlands will play Portugal in the UEFA Nations League final soccer match on Sunday in Porto, Portugal. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

PORTO, Portugal (AP) — The Netherlands can complete an unlikely turnaround with victory over Portugal in the UEFA Nations League final on Sunday.

After failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup and the 2016 European Championship, few expected the Dutch to be back in contention for a title so soon.

“When we saw the draw of this tournament, in a group with France and Germany, nobody expected Holland to be the winner of the group,” Netherlands manager Ronald Koeman said Saturday. “Now we are in the final. We beat France, we beat Germany, we beat England (in the semifinal). It will be unbelievable if we beat Portugal in the final at home (in Portugal).”

The Netherlands defeated England 3-1 in extra time on Wednesday to reach the final of UEFA’s newest competition. Host Portugal defeated Switzerland by the same score a day earlier.

In addition to some redemption for the team’s recent disappointments, the Nations League title would also give the Netherlands its first international trophy since the 1988 European Championship, when Koeman still played for the national team.

“Winning a trophy for your country, the first Nations League, we will go into the history books,” Dutch midfielder Daley Blind said. “We have fought hard and played great matches to be here so it’s also a reward for what we have produced until now. Hopefully we can live up to it in the final and reward ourselves with the trophy.”

Koeman has revamped the Dutch squad since taking over in 2018, bringing in young talent and restoring the team’s confidence. He has lost only three of his 13 matches in command.

“There was a new start with a new coach and a new group of players,” Dutch midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum said. “If you see where we’ve come from, it’s an extra motivation to win the Nations League. We really want that, it’s important.”

Koeman’s second match in charge was a friendly against Portugal, a 3-0 win in Geneva in March 2018. He replaced Dick Advocaat, whose team failed to qualify for the World Cup in Russia.

“There were tough times for the national team,” Blind said. “Now we recovered, and we are in the final of the Nations League. It’s a great motivation for this team, that we are going in the right direction and we can keep looking forward and keep pushing forward from here.”

UEFA created the Nations League to give teams more meaningful matches and reduce the number of friendlies. Despite some criticism at first, especially from clubs, the tournament provided some exciting games throughout its four leagues.

England will play against Switzerland in the third-place game earlier Sunday in Guimaraes.

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