So much talent, but sadly for the Dutch, not much to show for it. When Andres Iniesta’s strike in extra time handed Spain the World Cup in 2010, it also condemned the Netherlands to a hat trick of defeats in a World Cup final. The lone title at a major tournament for the Oranje came 24 years ago, when some on the current squad weren’t even born.
The Netherlands’ march toward European glory this year begins with a clash against Denmark in the Group of Death opener. A loss for either, and one nail will be in the coffin.
What's on the line:
Make no mistake: The Dutch won’t be content with a spot in the semis or finishing as runner-up. They’ve made that abundantly clear this week. With several core members in their late 20s or early 30s, it’s perhaps the last chance for this generation to lift a trophy. Nothing but three points will do against Denmark.
Expectations aren’t as high for the Danes, and with that comes little pressure. Olsen declared himself content with Denmark’s preparation for the tournament – before holding midfielder Niki Zimling went down injured as Denmark trained at the Metalist Stadium. No injuries had surfaced prior to that and this is a side capable of upsetting teams with heftier reputations, as last year’s scalp of Portugal proved.
Style and tactics:
With Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie and Wesley Sneijder, among others, the Dutch can play champagne football. Yet this is a side that also can mix it up physically with the best of them. Captain Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong, who protect the back four, are two of the toughest tackling midfielders in world football. They’ll look to break up play (and maybe a leg or two) and begin the transition to attack. If Kevin Strootman is preferred to de Jong, don’t be surprised. He’s more versatile.
Denmark doesn’t possess the Netherlands’ skill, even if striker Nicklas Bendtner probably feels he’s better than his Arsenal teammate van Persie. Laughable, of course, though Sir Nic has come up with the goods from time to time. RvP and Bendtner will operate as lone strikers. Containing the Dutch and snaring a goal on the counter or set piece will be the objective.
Players to watch:
For the Netherlands: Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder
Van Persie led the Premier League in scoring, and barring a late surprise, he will get the nod ahead of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar (who led the Bundesliga and Euro qualifying in scoring). Robben’s speedy runs on the wing can mesmerize opposition defenders, and he has some making-up to do after his poor display in the Champions League final, when he choked away a critical penalty. Going forward the Dutch are built around Sneijder. He claims he’s back to his best, but the jury is still out.
For Denmark: Nicklas Bendtner, Christian Eriksen, Stephan Andersen
Bendtner possesses an ego bigger than all of Copenhagen, but in a Denmark shirt, at least, he backs up the bravado, scoring 18 goals in 48 appearances. Without him, the Danes are toothless. Eriksen pulls the strings in midfield and sooner rather than later will leave feeder club Ajax (that’s what it is now). However, his form in recent friendlies hasn’t been great. Andersen has large boots to fill in goal, deputizing for the injured Thomas Sorensen. Sorensen’s experience (more than 100 caps) will be missed.
What we can expect?
When the Dutch topped Denmark 2-0 at the World Cup two years ago – in the group-stage opener for both – it was cagey. Chances were kept to a minimum in the first half, although Bendtner squandered a decent opportunity. The game turned when Daniel Agger netted an own goal early in the second, and the Danes couldn’t recover.
Nothing suggests Denmark will alter its approach, putting the onus on the Netherlands to again break down the Scandinavians. Note, though, that Robben sat out the South Africa outing because of an injury, so he may well be a difference-maker here.
What’s this? The Dutch acting unselfish? Van Bommel says so, and it’s one of the reasons the team went deep in South Africa, he said. “All the players adjusted, almost in an un-Dutch way, and sacrificed themselves for the team,” he told UEFA.
If the Dutch score first, Denmark – which hasn’t tasted victory against the Netherlands since 1967 – is bound to sink. When conceding first, its record in the tournament is a dismal 1-12-0.
The Netherlands. It’ll eventually wear down Denmark and walk away a 1-0 winner.
London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.