The first time the Netherlands participated in the EURO's was in 1976. In a two match play-off the Dutch beat Belgium before losing 3-1 to the Czech Republic, who were ultimately crowned as the winners of the tournament. The second time in Italy, 1980, was a massive disappointment and the end of an era with quality players. Remember that Clockwork Orange had been in two World Cup finals in 1974 & 1978 with players like Johan Cruyff, Johan Neeskens, Wim Rijsbergen, etc.
During the qualifying games for EURO 1984 it became clear that this was the beginning of a fresh start with high hopes for the future. Reigning coach Kees Rijvers was at the helm of a team that four years later captured the European Championship in Germany with a 2-0 win over Russia. Most people remember and still talk about the fantastic volley by Marco van Basten from an almost impossible angle. Following the success in 1988, The Netherlands were eliminated in 3 consecutive tournaments by way of penalty kicks in the play-off rounds. In 1992 against Denmark, 1996 versus France, and in 2000 as the host they were beaten by Italy. The current generation experienced two EURO's. In 2004 they reached the semi-finals and in 2008 as one of the favorites, Marco van Basten was out coached in the semi-final by the veteran Guus Hiddink, who advanced with Russia.
Looking at the preparation prior to the World Cup in 2010 the majority of the starters finished remarkable seasons with their club teams, but most important these players were regular starters throughout that season. The only set back then was injury plagued Arjen Robben, who turned out to be a major player once he became healthy enough to play. The starting line-up has remained consistent with 8-9 players returning. There are a few concerning issues that have impacted the role of "favorites" for the Dutch. The qualifying group for EURO 2012 was easy with no obstacles. The only team that could have given the Netherlands a run for their money was Sweden, who were the only team to hand the Dutch their only loss in group play. At the time of this loss Holland were unbeaten and had already qualified. Sweden were embarrassed in their first meeting with Netherlands which was enough motivation to safe face in front of their home crowd.
In the friendly matches leading up to the World Cup 2010, Germany put a massive dent in the confidence of the Dutch. That this team hit stride in time during World Cup 2010 was evident. Now coach Bert van Marwijk is faced with players not on top of their game including players that were struggling to make it into the first 11 of their club teams. Combined with injuries, there has not been consistency, and the ever so critical Dutch fans are becaming doubtful of this team. Key players not in form in the past season or sidelined due to injuries; Wesley Sneijder (Inter Milan), Rafael van der Vaart, Maarten Stekelenburg (As Roma), Gregory van der Wiel (AJAX), Arjen Robben (Bayern Munich), and Dirk Kuyt (Liverpool), to name a few. Luckily for us, our forwards are healthy and provide plenty of scoring power; Robin van Persie leading scorer in the EPL and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar earning the same award in the German Bundesliga.
As always our country has the most coaches with the best answers and solutions to the problems in the national team. From the living room in front of the TV the Dutch know it all. Some of the concerns
- The defense is suspect, besides Gregory van der Wiel (right back) and John Heitinga (center back) who both have played well for their respective clubs. The other center back position is questionable due to the injury of Joris Matthijsen. Both center backs have played together for the last 2-3 years and feel very comfortable. Problem is that Matthijsen was not a regular in the starting eleven of his club Malaga. The left full back spot has become an issue since Giovanni van Bronckhorst retired in 2010. The options are slim and it seems that youngster Jetro Willems (PSV) wins that spot. He has 2 caps and both were earned in the friendly matches leading up to the tournament in the last two weeks.
- The midfield is solid and filled with the experience of Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong (Man City). Although most Dutch experts like to see one holding midfielder, a block with these two players in front of the back four seems most likely to be the case.
- Up front is where the discussions have been fast and furious since you have two top scorers in two Major Leagues in Europe! The question is can both van Persie and Huntelaar be in the line-up together. Opinions differ but coach van Marwijk likes his balance and consistency, which puts Huntelaar on the bench and van Persie in his favorite spot as the center forward. Two completely different forwards, van Persie more mobile and involved while Huntelaar is your typical CF and probably one of the best finishers in the box. He needs to be provided with balls from the flanks, which in the current system of Holland is not always the case as both wingers like to come inside. Combination play is not Huntelaar's strength, which is the reason why van Persie has been named the number one for that position.
- The next argument inovles Wesley Sneijder and his rocky season. Very few games under struggling coach Ranieri at Inter, injuries, and no match fitness are the arguments that may ultimately land him on the bench. If the Dutch don't perform, one thing is for sure, Sneijder will most likely not complete the full 90 minutes of a game. His stand-in is van der Vaart, the forever 12th man on the national team seems to have accepted his role. He is much rather seen as the other midfielder in place of either De Jong or van Bommel. That will only be the case if the Dutch are chasing the game and have to come from behind.
- On the wing both Arjen Robben and Ibrahim Affellay provide speed and creativity. Good 1 v 1 players with a burst of speed and acceleration will make it difficult for the opposing defense. The million dollar question will be if Robben can stay healthy and how will Affellay hold up after his return from ACL surgery. Affellay has not played a full match for Barcelona all season. The first 90 minutes completed was last week in the friendly against Northern Ireland. Stand-ins for these positions are Dirk Kuyt and Luciano Narsigh. Kuyt the veteran who seems to have lost his starting spot and Narsigh is a young revelation with no experience.
The two holding players are disciplined and form a solid block in front of the back four. Both van Bommel and de Jong play simple, know their limitations, and execute their responsibilities with great detail. In the buildup they connect with the defense and feed their creative players in front of them. As soon as the attack is in action they know how to organize and play in support of these players. In transition they do a great job denying the opposition to counter.
Defensively the back four needs to stay focused and disciplined. Defend and carry out their responsibilities, do no more and no less! The key in the back is to stay injury free and eliminate the mistakes. The experience is present with Heitinga who has played in Holland, Spain, and currently a starter for Everton. Goalkeeper Maarten Stekeenburg has not had an easy year at AS Roma, but always seems to be a good performer defending the goal on national team duty.
In the group of death there are many mind games and peripheral angles used to impact the excitement. Germany is the well-oiled machine, but when do they start moving as a team. Portugal with all the focus on Ronaldo is not at all comfortable after their 3-1 loss at home against Turkey. Denmark may be the one to spoil the fun for one or two of these countries. With a bit of luck they could advance as one of the two into the next round.
Netherlands squad for Euro 2012:Goalkeepers: Maarten Stekelenburg (AS Roma), Michel Vorm (Swansea), Tim Krul (Newcastle).
Defenders: Khalid Boulahrouz (Stuttgart), John Heitinga (Everton), Joris Mathijsen (Malaga), Ron Vlaar (Feyenoord), Wilfred Bouma (PSV Eindhoven), Gregory van der Wiel (Ajax), Jetro Willems (PSV Eindhoven).
Midfielders: Ibrahim Afellay (Barcelona), Mark van Bommel (AC Milan), Nigel de Jong (Manchester City), Stijn Schaars (Sporting Lisbon), Wesley Sneijder (Inter Milan), Kevin Strootman (PSV Eindhoven), Rafael van der Vaart (Tottenham).
Forwards: Klaas-Jan Huntelaar (Schalke), Luuk de Jong (FC Twente), Dirk Kuyt (Liverpool), Luciano Narsingh (Heerenveen), Robin van Persie (Arsenal), Arjen Robben (Bayern Munich).
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