Team preview: Netherlands
The Dutch will travel to the World Cup with some fabulously talented attackers, a strong line of midfielders and lots and lots of question marks. If this sounds familiar, it's only because it is. The golden generation of the late '90s is gone, and what's left is a lopsided squad, with too many wingers, not enough central strikers and a very iffy back line -- a far cry from the old Jaap Stam-Frank de Boer block in the center of defense.
If a team could get away with fielding just attackers and advanced midfielders, the Dutch would be a shoo-in for this summer's final four. But they can't, and so they'll have to gobble up enough possession to keep the opposition out of their own half.
The Dutch were given a forgiving group, lumped in with Cameroon, Denmark and Japan, which should give them some time to get things right as the tournament progresses. In Euro 2008, they overran mighty Italy and France teams in the group stage, only to crash out in the next round.
Chemistry could be an issue with this team. With several big characters of what one prominent Dutch coach refers to as the "Yes, but ... "-generation, conflict never seems terribly far away.
Coach: Bert van Marwijk
Van Marwijk, who took over after Marco van Basten's eventful stint as coach ended in elimination at the hands of Russia in the quarterfinals of Euro 2008, has applied a steady hand to the team. Unlike van Basten, he has been consistent, kept a low profile and has shown himself adept at putting out fires. Meanwhile, he has produced the same dominance in qualifying that van Basten did.
Style of play
The Dutch, it is said, would rather play attractive soccer and lose than win ugly. Playing an updated 4-3-3 -- a 4-5-1 with advanced wingers -- the Dutch still crave the attack, with overlapping wing backs and an advanced playmaker supporting the lone striker. As unlikely to park the bus as any other team, the Dutch will endeavor to score one more than their opponents, rather than concede one fewer.
Players to watch
1. Robin van Persie. The versatile forward will be relied upon to hold up the ball at the top of the attack, not his forte. He's missed much of the season injured and will have to rebound strongly.
2. Joris Mathijsen. Perhaps the weakest link in a so-so Dutch defense, Mathijsen is prone to gaffes and letting his man get away from him. For the Dutch to stand half a chance, Mathijsen will have to be perfect.
3. Eljero Elia. While he may not start, the young HSV winger could change games in mere minutes, with his unstoppable dribbles and mint crosses. If paired with Arjen Robben, the two could give an aspirin a headache.
Wesley Sneijder. The Netherlands' starting playmaker had a furious season with Inter Milan, after being ousted from Real Madrid in the summer, helping his team all the way to Champions League, Serie A and Coppa Italia titles.
Giovanni van Bronckhorst. The left back is coming off an injury, headed into retirement after the World Cup and well beyond his peak. While a few better options are available, van Marwijk will stick with his captain.
Three key questions
1. Will infighting sink the ship? The Dutch have been known as much for their clash of personalities as for their creative play, and reports of infighting have surfaced at major tournaments over the years. Robin van Persie recently lashed out with negative comments about Dirk Kuyt; is that the start of a similar scenario for the Netherlands at this World Cup?
2. Will the creaky defense hold up? The one goal conceded by the Dutch in an otherwise dominant friendly win over Ghana this week -- due to a mistake between veterans Joris Mathijsen and Giovanni van Bronckhorst -- highlighted a team weakness for this talented side. Can the back four be counted on for consistent performances against top competition?
3. Is goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg an adequate replacement for Edwin van der Sar? The international retirement of van der Sar left the squad without its defensive leader. And while Stekelenburg has proved competent at times, he did struggle for portions of the past couple club seasons, even losing his starting place at Ajax for a time.
G Maarten Stekelenburg, Ajax (Netherlands)
D Gregory van der Wiel, Ajax (Netherlands)
D Johnny Heitinga, Everton (England)
D Joris Mathijsen, HSV (Germany)
D Giovanni van Bronckhorst, Feyenoord (Netherlands)
M Nigel de Jong, Manchester City (England)
M Mark van Bommel, Bayern Munich (Germany)
M Wesley Sneijder, Internazionale (Italy)
F Dirk Kuyt, Liverpool (England)
F Robin van Persie, Arsenal (England)
F Arjen Robben, Bayern Munich (Germany)