The Dutch needed something to cling to after suffering an unexpected 1-0 loss to a well-organized, well-prepared Denmark to open the Group of Death on Saturday. So, it was pointed out that when they won their lone major title at the Euros in 1988, they lost their first game, too.
What was conveniently omitted was that the Netherlands’ ensuing outing came against England, hardly a threat in tournaments. Up next this time for the Netherlands is not England, but quite the opposite, Germany, in one of the fiercest rivalries in international soccer.
And here’s another stat: When Germany beat Portugal 1-0 on Saturday, it won its sixth opener at a European Championships. In those previous five editions, it went on to reach the final.
What's on the line?
Mathematically, the Dutch can tie Germany and still advance to the quarterfinals. But realistically, a win is what they’ll want. Players from both teams have suggested as much.
“For the Netherlands, it is do or die,” Germany defender Holger Badstuber said. Added Dutch midfielder Rafael van der Vaart, who came on as a sub against Denmark: “We really have to go for it now. If we had won [against Denmark], then we knew a draw against Germany would mean we were already doing well. But now we just have to win twice.”
Style and tactics:
Decisions, decisions for Dutch manager Bert van Marwijk. He is likely to stick with his 4-2-3-1, the same formation employed by the Germans. But who plays is the question. Robin van Persie, the lone striker, missed a flurry of chances against the Danes. Will he make way for Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, or will van Marwijk start both, using van Persie behind Huntelaar as he did late in the second half Saturday? Facing the Germans, it’s unlikely that van Marwijk won’t employ two holding midfielders.
German manager Joachim Low’s big call against Portugal was starting Mario Gomez at striker instead of Miroslav Klose, who's close to becoming the country’s all-time leading scorer. He was vindicated when Gomez, off target in the Champions League final, pounced to score the winner on one of his few opportunities. But Low is known for springing surprises, and Klose scored a goal and set up another when Germany beat the Netherlands 3-0 in a friendly in November.
Players to watch:
For the Netherlands: Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie, Mark van Bommel
Robben is bound to snap his slump sooner rather than later, and how he’d love to do it against Germany – and several of his club teammates at Bayern Munich. Similarly, it’s time for van Persie, who will probably start, to show his mental toughness and put in a solid display against classy international opposition. Speculation was that van Bommel, the captain, and his 35-year-old legs weren’t substituted against Denmark because he’s van Marwijk’s son in-law. If he gets the nod again, how will he cope against the Germans?
For Germany: Philipp Lahm, Mats Hummels, Bastian Schweinsteiger
Watching Lahm, who continues to make the switch from right back at club level to left back with Germany, deal with Robben will be entertaining; Lahm could be in Robben’s head. Hummels, as one of the two central defenders, will have to stand firm facing Dutch attacks. He impressed against Portugal when picked ahead of Per Mertesacker. Schweinsteiger was mediocre against the Portuguese, but given how Low talked him up pre-tournament, don’t expect him to be dropped for Toni Kroos.
What we can expect?
Had this been a group opener, both sides would have been slightly cautious.
However, given its predicament, the Netherlands will have to take the game to Germany and be the more adventurous side. That could be trouble. Germany’s counterattacking game is more lethal than Denmark’s, with Mesut Ozil often the one sprinting forward.
This is the first real sign of trouble on the field for the Dutch in two years, and the in-fighting could be beginning. That didn’t take long. Van der Vaart wasn’t pleased he didn’t start against Denmark, and de Jong, reportedly, was annoyed because he was subbed in the second half, not van Bommel. So far, van Persie and Wesley Sneijder have cooperated. Perhaps taking on Germany will force the Netherlands to channel the frustration in a positive manner.
It’s still a highly charged outing, although not as bitter as in the 1970s, ‘80s and early ‘90s. Who could forget Frank Rijkaard spitting at Rudi Voller at the 1990 World Cup?
“Matches against Holland have cost me years of my life,” German icon Franz Beckenbauer has said. “But I wouldn’t have missed them for anything.”
The whispers from the Dutch camp aren’t good. Discontent is growing. Not ideal when opposing Germany. Oh, and the Germans aren’t bad. Germany to win, 3-1.
London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.