Holland's keeper conundrum
One year before the opening game of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Holland could become the first European team to qualify for the competition. Only one point is necessary from an away game in Iceland, or one at home against Norway in the following game, and it seems very unlikely for Bert van Marwijk's men not to get what they need before the summer as they have gathered all fifteen points from five games so far.
Behind them, Scotland and Norway are battling it out for the play-off place in group Seven, but all eyes are on Holland, who have suddenly become the WC-qualifiers par excellence.
Van Marwijk's only problem is in goal. Since his debut in 1995, Edwin van der Sar has been an easy first choice for any Dutch national coach, which is illustrated by his 130 caps. He introduced a style of basic goalkeeping in which he stripped his job of any showboating or special effects and perfected the art of positioning. He could keep a clean sheet and a clean strip at the same time, however, the Man United player made Euro 2008 his farewell tournament as he wanted to spend more time at home with his family.
For several years Maarten Stekelenburg of Ajax was seen as the crown prince, who would take Van der Sar's place. Indeed he did after the summer of 2008, but then suffered a shoulder injury and was ruled out for the October internationals against Iceland and Norway. Van Marwijk then took a good look at the next in line, Henk Timmer, the 37-year old Feyenoord man.
Timmer had been a loyal servant to his nation as the third substitute 'keeper in the tournaments of 2006 and 2008 and was simply glad to be a part of these football festivals in the twilight of his career. He had played some friendlies, of which the Austrian game before the summer was definitely the eyecatcher - after he flapped at two corners and was surprised by a tame shot - and he failed to show why he should be the number one.
His form at Feyenoord was not that convincing either, although their defence was and still is quite shaky. You could argue that Timmer had so much to do that he was bound to miss a few balls during any game, but he was not helped by over a century of goals conceded in two seasons. Timmer was flatfooted on several occasions, but it can be difficult to play behind a back four that don't keep an eye on relatively easy rules such as the ability to play opponents offside.
Because of this van Marwijk lacked the confidence in Timmer to play him in the Autumn international games, but did ask him to sit on the bench. While others would have raged at the decision, Timmer was self-critical enough to accept this role.
In goal against Iceland was, surprisingly enough, Edwin van der Sar, who said: ''I was coming to watch the game anyway, so why not go on the pitch and help out.'' Although he probably would never have travelled to Oslo to watch the team there, he agreed to play against Norway as well and kept clean sheets in both games.
In the friendly against Sweden in November, Timmer was rewarded for his loyalty with a place in the starting eleven, but was substituted at half-time for Michel Vorm. Vorm had a great first season at FC Utrecht when he was 24, but was in and out of the side due to injuries in the next. His inclusion in Oranje was therefore a surprise and it took him only five minutes to make his first mistake, while more injuries have sidelined him since.
Stekelenburg returned from injury in the new year and went straight into the Dutch starting line-up in a friendly against Tunisia. Nothing seemed the matter when Klaas-Jan Huntelaar scored on the hour and victory was nigh, but then Jamel Saihi ran out of attacking options outside the box and had an opportunistic shot on goal. Although the ball went straight towards Stekelenburg it did end up in the net and the Ajax man was derided for his howler.
Meanwhile, at club level he had not been very fortunate either. During time on the sidelines his replacement, the former U-21 keeper Kenneth Vermeer, had done a good job. After his return, Stekelenburg was in a team that took only one point in four games and, looking for a change, Marco van Basten announced that the position of the keepers would be undecided from then on.
Both would get their chances, but it was Vermeer who won, leaving a disillusioned Stekelenburg on the bench during the closing months of the season. His time at Ajax seemed over with Van Basten as a coach.
Yet he still was the national keeper. And still is. Bert van Marwijk decided to stand behind Stekelenburg and, with only one mistake during fifteen caps, it seemed harsh to give up on him. Also, there are few alternatives.
Without enough game time it is a big risk to play anyone, even if he is a keeper and might not be that busy against Macedonia, as one mistake could ruin the good position of the Dutch in Group 9. However, a break came for him when van Basten resigned at Ajax and new coach Martin Jol took over.
Under a new coach, Stekelenburg could pick himself up from these bad times and become a better keeper. Although another scenario is that he never recovers, has to leave Ajax and may lose his place in the national team; and, if that happens, then Bert van Marwijk is in real trouble.
There are few proven Dutch goalkeepers left. After fourty years with great names like Jan van Beveren, Piet Schrijvers, Hans van Breukelen and Edwin van der Sar in goal, suddenly the future looks bleak between the sticks, while the rest of the team is getting better every game. The only hope that remains is that Brazil used to win their World Cups with a similar problem to contend with.