April 27, 2010

By Jon Pickstone and Ben Franklin, SI.com

Group E
Wesley Sneijder
Dutch playmaker Wesley Sneijder is arguably the most in-form midfielder in the world.
Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
June 14 Denmark Johannesburg
June 19 Japan Durban
June 24 Cameroon Cape Town
Fast Facts
COACH: Bert van Marwijk (second year)
HOW THEY QUALIFIED: Finished first place in UEFA Group 9
PREVIOUS WORLD CUPS: 8 appearances ('34, '38, '74, '78, '90, '94, '98, '06); runners-up in '74, '78
Projected Starting Lineup
G Maarten Stekelenburg Ajax (Netherlands)
D Gregory van der Wiel Ajax (Netherlands)
D Johnny Heitinga Everton (England)
D Joris Mathijsen Hamburger SV (Germany)
D Giovanni van Bronckhorst Feyenoord (Netherlands)
M Nigel de Jong Manchester City (England)
M Mark van Bommel Bayern Munich (Germany)
M Wesley Sneijder Inter Milan (Italy)
M Arjen Robben Bayern Munich (Germany)
M Eljero Elia Hamburger SV (Germany)
F Robin van Persie Arsenal (England)

Through April, SI.com will profile World Cup teams weekly. We continue with the Netherlands. Click here for the full archive.

Key players

We see the performance of the Netherlands' midfield as the key to its potential success. Nigel De Jong should cover expediently for a defense that, whilst competent, is the weakest aspect of the Dutch team. Fast and fearless, De Jong is happiest when tackling and laying off the ball to the nearest man -- a true midfield terrier. Though limited by his lack of creativity, his positional discipline allows the versatile Mark van Bommel to range further forward in support of Wesley Sneijder and to potentially add to his international tally of 9 goals from 50 appearances. An interesting trivia fact -- Van Bommel's wife, Andra, is the daughter of coach Van Marwijk.

If De Jong is the safety catch and Van Bommel is the box-to-box rover, Sneijder is the fulcrum of the Dutch engine room -- a player whose creativity and eye for killer passes release the pace of Arjen Robben and Eljero Elia and the marksmanship of Robin van Persie.

The trickery and pace of relative newcomer Eljero Elia adds balance to the flanks and supplements Robben out wide and removes the need for Van Marwijk to resolve the headache of accommodating Rafael van der Vaart in a side that already contains the similar talents of Sneijder. Although sidelined for April, Elia has been one of the revelations in the Bundesliga this season.

Robben has also been sensational (20 goals in 31 games) since joining Bayern Munich from Real Madrid in 2009, even putting his world-class opposite number, Franck Ribery, in the shade. Robben is a temperamental player, but in his prime at 26, and with the experience of seven years at leading European clubs, could this be the electric winger's World Cup?

What to watch for

The Netherlands on its day combines the flair of Brazil with the discipline of Germany. Its raucous, fun-loving fans, decked almost wholly in Orange, are themselves one of the World Cup's highlights. What's not to like?

The Netherlands' offensive strength in depth could prove vital during an extended run in South Africa. If Elia and Van Persie start up front, AC Milan's Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Hamburg's Ruud Van Nistelrooy and Liverpool's Dirk Kuyt lie in reserve. As a reserve option, Real Madrid's Van der Vaart can cover in a range of attacking midfield roles. However, the Oranje's defense is more frail. Maarten Stekelenburg can lack composure, while Giovanni van Bronckhorst, at 35, may struggle against real pace.

Overall though, Van Marwijk has combined a promising mix of experienced players in their prime, re-enforced by some mature heads and a sprinkling of youthful vitality. Arguably the leading soccer nation to have never won a World Cup, the Netherlands will again be serious contenders. If it goes by the formbook, a quarterfinal against Brazil awaits.

Key match in group stage

June 14 vs. Denmark. The Netherlands won't underestimate its Group E opponents, but make no mistake, the Oranje are the overwhelming favorites to progress. Denmark, who finished ahead of Portugal and Sweden in qualifying, will probably pip Cameroon to second spot. A win against Denmark will settle the nerves and reassure that the Netherlands, who failed to net in 3 consecutive friendlies last autumn, can score against the most organized of teams.

Celebrity scouting report: Collins John*

Collins JohnEvery tournament we've got one of the best countries, not [saying that] just because I'm from there. We have too much quality in the team and we have a number of players who play in the top teams in Europe. A player who will be a big player for us in South Africa is [Robin] van Persie. He has been doing fantastic for Arsenal and for the country. I think a quarterfinal, semifinal experience will be expected. Van Persie and [Arjen] Robben are the two players to keep your eyes on. Robben has had arguably the best season of his life. I think Robben, [Wesley] Sneijder and Van Persie are the three key players for the Dutch in this tournament. ... Cameroon is going to be very dangerous, with [Samuel] Eto'o and a couple of other players, Geremi and (Alex) Song, they will be tough to defeat. They are a very good team and I think we'll have to watch out for them. You have to be patient and play patiently and grab your chances when they arise. In the second half, they will give you gaps in the back and you have to capitalize on those opportunities. ... Overall, I know it is not an easy group, but I think we have a good chance to advance out of the group and go from there.
*The Chicago Fire striker is a former U-21 Netherlands international. As told to SI.com.

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