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When Georginio Wijnaldum applied the finishing touches on a 3-0 win over Brazil in the third-place playoff at the 2014 World Cup, few would have expected that match to be the Netherlands' last appearance at a major tournament for more than six years.
After failing to qualify for both Euro 2016 and the 2018 World Cup, the Dutch were poised for an emphatic return to a grand stage this summer.
The Oranje were on the precipice of ushering in a new golden generation at Euro 2020 after enduring a difficult transition period, with the old guard giving way to a new crop of exciting young talent. After paying their dues, those fresh faces were finally set to reap the rewards.
Sitting as short as 7-1 in December to win Euro 2020, the Netherlands were primed to make a legitimate run at the nation's first international trophy in 32 years. Then the dominoes started falling.
On Dec. 15, star striker Memphis Depay ruptured his ACL and was ruled out for the remainder of the season, which likely meant he couldn't represent his country at Euro 2020.
Depay was thriving under Ronald Koeman, scoring 11 goals and assisting on 11 more in just 18 games playing for the manager. He was the focal point of a revived Dutch attack, and his absence would have become a massive blow to their chances.
Malen, who had netted 18 goals for club and country this season at the time of his injury, was the obvious candidate to take Depay's place in the lineup. The 21-year-old was enjoying a breakout campaign and living up to the hype that followed his development in the youth ranks.
Losing Malen and Depay was set to shift immense pressure onto the shoulders of Steven Bergwijn, who completed a £27-million transfer to Tottenham in January. The forward scored in his debut match against Manchester City and was enjoying a promising start to life in the Premier League, rounding into form just in time for the Euros.
Then on March 7, Bergwijn injured his ankle in a match at Turf Moor, and it was revealed he would be sidelined for at least a few months, leaving his Euro 2020 status in doubt. Without the trio of Bergwijn, Malen, and Depay, the Netherlands were facing the seemingly insurmountable task of filling a void in their attack. The country's international trophy drought was sure to continue.
But the Euros moving to 2021 is breathing new life into the Oranje's tournament hopes.
De Jong (22) and De Ligt (20) are already two of the best in the world, despite not yet reaching their full potential. Of course, they're hardly the only two Dutch players with room to improve.
Donny van de Beek (22), Mo Ihattaren (18), Myron Boadu (19), Calvin Stengs (21), Justin Kluivert (20), Malen (21), and Bergwijn (22) will all benefit from another season of physical and mental development.
With a full complement of players at Koeman's disposal, a golden generation ready to write its first chapter, and an experienced crop of superstars in Virgil van Dijk, Wijnaldum, and Depay on hand to pave the way, 2021 could become a special year for the Oranje.
Alex Moretto is a sports betting writer for theScore. A journalism graduate from Guelph-Humber University, he has worked in sports media for over a decade. He will bet on anything from the Super Bowl to amateur soccer, is too impatient for futures, and will never trust a kicker. Find him on Twitter @alexjmoretto.