The Netherlands came mighty close at the 2010 World Cup -- and quite a few experts believe Bert van Marwijk's team can go one better this year. The starting lineup is virtually unchanged from two years ago. Whether that's a good or bad thing is largely a matter of opinion. If anything, both the strengths and weaknesses of the Dutch seem more pronounced this time. Going forward, "Oranje" certainly looks better than ever. Scoring 37 goals in 10 qualification games would suggest that the "negative and ultra-brutal" tag that the team earned after the final in Johannesburg was over-simplistic and inaccurate.
This group of players can play with the best of them. But can they also defend? The possible loss of center back Joris Mathijsen, never a top-class defender to begin with, threatens to accentuate a deficit in quality at the back. Van Marwijk, the most pragmatic of coaches, will probably be forced to play the destructive Nigel de Jong alongside captain Mark van Bommel in the middle of the park as a consequence. Dutch purists won't be impressed. But if the Netherlands manage to protect their end long enough to score one or two at the other end, they might yet win their first international competition since Euro 1988.
The 28-year old has been in imperious form for Arsenal this year. England's Footballer of the Year scored 37 goals in all competitions and at times carried his team single-handedly through a difficult season. Similar brilliance from this most cultured of goal-getters at this tournament will make him a prime candidate for the Ballon d'Or.
He came back with a five-centimeter hole in his thigh after the World Cup but is back to his mercurial best. Unlike at Bayern Munich, where he plays as an inverted winger on the right, he'll be mostly deployed on the left by Van Marwijk. Few players are as exciting as the 28-year old in full flight, but there are doubts about his big game temperament (see below).
The Dutch No. 10 has endured a rough patch at Inter Milan, where he was hampered by injuries and managerial upheaval. But the spring has brought slightly improved performances and there is hope yet. The 27-year old needs to replicate former greatness if Oranje dreams of a trophy are to be fulfilled.
De Jong has been reinstated next to Van Bommel after Van Marwijk had dropped him for a particularly violent foul on Newcastle's Hatem Ben Arfa. In some quarters in the Netherlands, the double defensive pivot is seen as a betrayal of the country's footballing ideals. There is a media campaign for the introduction of the much more imaginative Rafael van der Vaart, but Van Marwijk seems to favor two "controllers," as the Dutch call defensive-minded midfielders. PSV's Kevin Strootman might be the compromise candidate.
In Johannesburg, Robben squandered two chances, and his team went on to lose the World Cup final. In this year's Champions League final, he missed a penalty in extra time, and Bayern went on to lose the game, too. The winger could only banish his personal demons -- as well as a slightly unfair "bottler" tag -- if he delivers third time around.
The sensational form of Schalke 04 striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar has predictably led to calls for his inclusion. Attempts to play him alongside Van Persie have not worked, however, so one of Europe's most in-form forwards will once again be relegated to a bit role. For Van Marwijk, it's a nice problem to have but also a huge distraction. The debate is already a fierce one, before a ball has been kicked in anger.
It's another 4-2-3-1 formation, with clearly defined roles. Defenders defend, holding midfielders hold, attacking midfielders and attackers attack. This simplicity works pretty well -- especially if the Netherlands takes an early lead and can then stretch the opposition on the counter. Few teams execute the moment of "transition," the few seconds after winning the ball, with as much class and precision.
But the fault lines become very visible in tightly contested, claustrophobic games. Right back Gregory van der Wiel is the only deeper player to provide the only occasional spark; everyone else is frankly not that good. Van Marwijk's men should still have enough firepower to paper over the cracks, but an utterly unforgiving group makes backing them difficult at this stage.