It is difficult to imagine a World Cup without Arjen Robben and the Netherlands. It’s unsettling, even.
But it’s a possibility staring the world in the face after the Dutch lost their third game of the qualifying campaign, 4-0 to France, and slipped into fourth place in UEFA Group A – a group out of which only two countries can qualify.
Holland was three points behind both France and Sweden heading into the day, and after the French ran circles around the Oranje at the Stade de France, the size of that particular gap doubled.
The Dutch did get help from elsewhere: Bulgaria beat Sweden 3-2 in a back-and-forth match that kept the distance between the Netherlands and a playoff place at just three points. But Bulgaria jumped two points ahead of Holland as well.
So with three games remaining, the Dutch have three points to make up – and that’s just to stay alive. First-place teams qualify automatically, but eight runners-up go into a set of two-leg playoffs for the final four European berths.
The Dutch can jump back into third place by beating Bulgaria on Sunday, and can recoup all three points separating them and Sweden on the final matchday against the Swedes. But they also must erase a goal differential deficit of four. That’s why the extent of Thursday’s defeat was so critical.
And if they can’t – and if Sweden beats both Belarus and Luxembourg – then they’ll miss the World Cup. Which would be shocking.
It would be the culmination of a quite rapid descent from the upper echelons of international soccer. The Netherlands reached the final of the 2010 World Cup, and finished third in 2014. But with stars like Robben, Robin van Persie and Wesley Sneijder aging, the arc of the team’s decline has been steep. It missed out altogether on the 24-nation Euro 2016, and looks set to miss out on Russia 2018 as well.
Thursday’s match offered plenty of evidence of that decline. Holland was thoroughly overmatched. There was a case to be made that 10 of the 11 best players on the field were wearing blue. N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba were all-powerful in midfield. Antoine Griezmann combined really nicely with Olivier Giroud for the opening goal:
— Jon Gaztelumendi (@jon_gaztelu) August 31, 2017
France’s dominance was frightening, not just to Holland, but to the rest of the world – to anybody that might have to cope with it in Russia next summer.
The French have a seemingly endless pool of talent. In control after a 61st-minute Kevin Strootman red card, they brought €230 million worth of strikers – Kylian Mbappe and Alexandre Lacazette – off the bench. The likes of Blaise Matuidi and Adrien Rabiot couldn’t even get onto the pitch in midfield. Oh, and a €147 million winger, Ousmane Dembele, wasn’t even in the squad.
Thomas Lemar, who started on the left wing after reportedly rejecting a move to Arsenal earlier in the day, belted a half-volley into the top corner for France’s second, and tapped in the third. Mbappe got the fourth as the Dutch collapsed in the game’s final five minutes.
— Planet Sébastien (@seb_planet) August 31, 2017
The 4-0 victory allays any fears the French had about perhaps missing out on Russia themselves. They should be safe. But the Dutch are anything but. They’re in trouble. And Sunday’s home match against Bulgaria might as well be a must-win.
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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.