ROTTERDAM, Netherlands (AP)Northern Ireland defender Paddy McNair snapped at the heels of Netherlands midfielder Frenkie de Jong for 93 minutes. It still wasn’t quite enough.
Deep in stoppage time, De Jong sprinted past an exhausted McNair and into the heart of the Northern Ireland defense before laying off a perfectly weighted pass for Memphis Depay to score his second goal in 15 minutes and seal a 3-1 win for the Dutch in Thursday’s European Championship qualifier.
It was a trademark De Jong move – gathering the ball while going forward at pace, looking around to assess where his fellow orange-clad players were and finding one of them with pin-point accuracy.
The victory took the Netherlands, which did not qualify for the last two major tournaments, to top of qualifying Group C.
De Jong, the 22-year-old Barcelona midfielder who only made his international debut just over a year ago, has been at the heart of the resurgence of Ronald Koeman’s team.
It was a measure of the respect Northern Ireland had for De Jong that coach Michael O’Niell effectively posted McNair in his forward line just to shadow the rising star.
”Very much our game plan centered around trying to keep De Jong quiet,” O’Niell said.
The tactic of stifling the Barcelona midfielder almost worked to perfection as Northern Ireland frustrated the Dutch for most of the night at De Kuip stadium and even took an unexpected lead when substitute Josh Magennis headed in at the far post in the 75th minute.
After Depay had equalized, it was De Jong who quickly placed the ball back on the center spot and urged his team to get a move on in the hunt for a winner.
De Jong arrived at Barcelona this season on a 75-million euro transfer following a standout year with Ajax, when his vision and pinpoint accurate passing from midfield helped lead the Amsterdam powerhouse to the Champions League semifinal and Dutch league title.
He is already making his mark in a midfield at Camp Nou long bossed by Sergio Busquets, the veteran with more than 540 Barcelona appearances to his name.
In an indication of a changing of the guard, De Jong was in Barcelona’s starting lineup as holding midfielder and 31-year-old Busquets began on the bench for the 4-0 thrashing of Sevilla on Sunday, a switch allowed coach Ernesto Valverde to start Arturo Vidal in a more attacking midfield position.
Speaking ahead of Thursday’s match, De Jong said he isn’t doing anything radically different at his new club.
”You play with different players, get into certain situations more often – that makes you better and, of course, you learn from it, that seems logical to me,” he told Dutch daily Algemeen Dagblad.
Valverde initially used De Jong in a more attacking role on the left of midfield than he was used to with Ajax and the Netherlands, where he often picked up the ball deep in his own half and drove his midfield forward – as he did Thursday in Rotterdam.
De Jong is the latest in a long line of Dutch players who have starred for Barcelona – including his current Netherlands coach Ronald Koeman and the likes of Johan Cruyff and Patrick Kluivert.
Koeman complimented the prodigy for his staying power in the match in finally shaking off McNair.
”You see as the game progresses that he becomes more decisive and finds freedom,” Koeman said.