Netherlands hoping to end World Cup winless streak
AMSTERDAM (AP) The Netherlands will head to Brazil hoping - again - to shake off the tag of best team never to win a World Cup.
The team's manager will be aiming to prove he is a winner not only to fans of his home country, but also of Manchester United, where he takes the reins after returning from Brazil.
But the runners-up in 1974, 1978 and 2010 seem to have a squad with less sparkle than any of those teams and could be reliant on a handful of veterans who are surely on their last World Cup legs.
Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal does not appear to have settled on a first-choice goalkeeper, while his midfield is in flux and missing its strongest performer through injury. The country's top international scorer, Robin van Persie, has yet to deliver on any of football's greatest stages.
Inspired by midfield playmaker Wesley Sneijder and backed up by an uncompromising defense, the Netherlands reached the 2010 final in Johannesburg only to lose to Spain 1-0 in extra time of an ugly final.
The two teams get a chance to make amends for the disappointing final when they meet again on June 13 at the Arena Fonte Nova in Salvador for their first Group B match.
''It's special that we start the World Cup against the opponent we faced in the final four years ago,'' Van Persie said. ''It's beautiful that we immediately get the chance to put that (defeat) right.''
After the mouth-watering opener against Spain - arguably the most-anticipated match of the first round - the Netherlands goes to Porto Alegre to face Australia and finishes group play against Chile in Sao Paulo.
The tournament is Van Gaal's international swan song. He announced months ago he was leaving the national team after the World Cup and will be replaced by another veteran, Guus Hiddink.
But instead of heading into retirement, the 62-year-old Van Gaal goes from Brazil to Old Trafford to take the hot seat left vacant when Manchester United fired Alex Ferguson's replacement David Moyes after less than a season in charge.
Van Gaal insists that his focus will be purely on the Netherlands in Brazil, even though he will surely have begun contemplating how to get United back to the top of English football after a calamitous season under Moyes.
Van Gaal succeeded Bert van Marwijk after the Dutch crashed out of the 2012 European Championship without winning a single point in group play. He immediately set about rebuilding the team and seeking to play more attractive attacking football.
It is a measure of the work Van Gaal has undertaken that he has handed international team debuts to 25 players - enough to form two complete teams and have a few reserves on the bench.
But his main front line remains unchanged from the last World Cup. Van Persie will spearhead the attack, who appears to be fully recovered from a sprained left knee he picked up after scoring a hat trick in Manchester United's 3-0 Champions League win over Olympiakos in March.
Van Persie will be hoping to finally show off his scoring prowess at a major tournament. He scored only one goal at the 2010 World Cup and matched that tally two years later at Euro 2012.
He demonstrated he is in form with a breath-taking left-foot volley to earn the Netherlands a hard-fought 1-1 draw with Ecuador in a friendly this month, as Van Gaal experimented with a 5-3-2 formation he expects to deploy in Brazil instead of the traditional 4-3-3 setup that was the foundation of the Netherlands' ultra-attacking brand of Total Football in the 1970s and beyond.
Van Persie will be supported by the pace of Arjen Robben, who has his own World Cup demons to bury after squandering a golden chance to score in regulation time in the 2010 World Cup final.
In one of the most serious injury losses for Van Gaal, Roma midfielder Kevin Strootman will definitely not be fit for Brazil after having reconstructive surgery on his left knee to repair injuries to his anterior cruciate ligament and medial and lateral meniscus.
Van Gaal called the powerful midfield dynamo's absence, a ''blood-letting'' for his squad.
It may well leave the 1988 European champions too anemic to finally win the World Cup.