So near yet so VAR for England, in a night that went from De Ligt to disaster.
They thought they had won their Nations League semi-final against the Netherlands late on when Jesse Lingard was played through by Jordan Henderson and slotted in. Lingard ran into the corner, surrounded by his team-mates, the crowd were wild, the Dutch set up to restart the game from the centre. And then the dreaded VAR check flashed on the big screens and the ref’s hand went to his ear.
Lingard was offside by a fine marginbut the goal was ruled out nonetheless and the game went to extra time.
Then England were to blame for their own undoing. John Stones lost the ball on the edge of his own area — a defender’s greatest sin — Memphis Depay’s shot was saved superbly by Jordan Pickford but as Kyle Walker chased back to prevent Quincy Promes scoring with the rebound he deflected the ball into his own net.
Then Ross Barkley decided to pass the ball straight to Depay instead of Pickford and he nipped the ball across to Promes to score.
As revealed by Raheem Sterling’s PR agency on Tuesday night, the Manchester City forward captained the side on the night he won his 50th cap, meaning Harry Kane and Henderson started on the bench. Gareth Southgate chose to rest all of the Liverpool and Tottenham players who joined up late with the squad after contesting the Champions League final.
It also meant Jadon Sancho – the 19-year-old Borussia Dortmund sensation – earned another start and produced another impressive performance until he was replaced by Lingard on 61 minutes, displaying the agility and slender toes of a leading ballerina when he plucked a high ball from the air, and arguably should have scored his first England goal when Fabian Delph swung in a cross and he leapt between defenders but headed too close to Dutch goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen.
England had not had a shot on target and the Netherlands were looking the better side – controlling more of the ball – in the first half an hour before Matthijs de Ligt handed them the lead.
De Ligt – the 19-year-old Ajax captain who will move to a European giant this summer – is the defender everyone is talking about, yet he showed there is still some inexperience that will need ironing out if he is to live up to the hype. His awful miscontrol in his own penalty area allowed Marcus Rashford to dart in and De Ligt could only trip the Manchester United striker as he desperately tried to make amends. In Kane’s absence, Rashford carefully tucked away the penalty.
But Rashford was forced off at half-time, replaced by Kane. Rashford had been slipped through by Sancho but delayed for a fraction too long and Denzel Dumfries crunched him firmly but fairly. He struggled through to the break but could not continue.
Virgil van Dijk learned the price of his success with every touch of the ball. A colossus lauded in the Premier League, he was booed loudly by a good majority of England supporters every time he was on the ball, which increased in the second half as the Netherlands began to hoover up possession.
They scored the equaliser they deserved and De Ligt earned some retribution. A corner came in and he beat Walker to thunder in a header at the near post.
In fairness to England, they regained composure and in a VAR-less world Lingard would have them into the Nations League final. Instead, their fate was decided by less than an inch.