Oranje qualifies for Euro 2008

So the Dutch qualified for the Euro 2008 tournament in Switzerland and in Austria finally. Their very slim 1-0 win over unfancied Luxembourg meant that Bulgaria’s earlier 1-0 victory over Group G winners, Romania was all but futile.

As usual, I’d try to analyse the Dutch performance match-for-match as these would give a rather clear picture of the things to come in next year’s rather prestigious tournament.

Playing at De Kuip Stadium in Rotterdam (home of Dutch Eredivisie giants Feyenoord Rotterdam) meant that the home support could be the decisive factor for a thumping glory or the mental pressure could buckle all but the most seasoned of campaigners. In retrospect, the team responded to the Oranje fans’ support well but the result did not flatter their performance.

You might say that it would be down to playing against one of Europe’s weakest teams; to the extent of being one of those whipping boys where 7-0 scorelines are the norm rather than the exception. Think of San Marino, Faeroe Islands, Andorra and probably the likes of Estonia and Lithuania as well to a lesser degree but you would get the idea. I don’t think that such ‘smaller’ teams would roll over and succumb to the bigger sides these days.

Luxembourg made the Dutch work for their similar 1-0 victory at the Josy Barthel Stadium at home and only a Joris Mathijsen (surprises would never cease) header won the day for the heavily-favoured men in bright Orange kits. While the Group G standings made the Grand Duchy’s minor football team seem justified in way of their performance, their 1-0 win over Belarus away secured the only points they have so far. The other minnows I’ve named above are absolutely rock-bottom of their respective qualifying groups and have served as ‘points-getter’ for the other teams as well as for the goal machines to eke out some unjustified hattricks.

If the Dutch team were made to sweat for their decisive win, then the Luxembourg players did not buckle under the weight of their neighbours. I think that some Oranje fans were absolutely disenchanted with the manner of the Dutch win and I’d tend to agree. But for a close-ranged Danny Koevermans (I suppose I’d hear some footy fans alien to the Eredivisie ask who) strike, the Dutch came very close to adding to the tally but did not do so.

The official UEFA site’s comments about the Dutch last Saturday was less-compelling: – "…being pushed all the way by Luxembourg in Rotterdam." I’d disagree. Those who didn’t watch the match and referred to the result might agree but this time, I’d no sympathy for the critics. The Dutch were rather good despite the unconvincing win.

Apparently, van Basten started with the traditional 4-4-2 formation. If that is the start of the 1-0 wins and boring football, so be it. Better to play a tepid 4-4-2 than a confusing 4-3-3 which the Dutch used ever since San Marco was in charge.

Van Basten’s 4-4-2 may seem a logical change as his 3 men attack rarely worked a treat for the neutrals as well as the football purveyors. It hardly need to be remembered that the Dutch has lost some important wingers of the past generation – Marc Overmars, Ronald de Boer, Boudewijn Zenden, and Andy van der Meyde are either no longer available for the Dutch or not in the right sort of form to represent the Oranje. The Dutch attack has since been dulled with the lack of true wingers. Arjen Robben is a splendid prospect for either flank but his injuries hampered this opportunity.

Perhaps, while envisioning the delicious prospect of a van Persie- van Nistelrooij partnership for the Euro 2008 championships, the 4-4-2 system has been deployed. The 4-man midfield is the sort of umbrella-shaped formation; with Demy de Zeeuw holding the anchor at midfield (defensive midfield) and the trio of Clarence Seedorf, Rafael van der Vaart and Wesley Sneijder making up the 3-attacking midfielder roles. Gio van Bronckhorst (leftback), Mario Melchiot (rightback) and both Joris Mathijsen and Wilfred Bouma formed the centre-back roles. Upfront, Danny Koevermans (the goalscorer) and the relatively quiet Ruud van Nistelrooy partnered each other in attack.

With this sort of attacking potential at hand (although I still believe that de Zeeuw and Mathijsen is hardly a good addition to the Oranje),  it’s natural that the Oranje faithful expected the sort of victory 4 years ago to seal their Euro qualifiers. (Scotland 2003 under Dick Advocaat)

The chances were there – van Nistelrooij screwing a chance well wide; Melchiot headed in a goal-bound ball but cleared by a Luxembourg defender off the line; Koevermans again smashing a shot against the post approximately 14 minutes from time before a rare chance occurred for Sébastien Remy (Luxembourg) to score. Van der Sar was on hand to make a point-blank safe and concentration of the backline seemed suspect again. All in all, one goal was there at the end of a lacklustre match.

Perhaps, like I’ve said – the Dutch played against a weaker opponent and is therefore, having an easier game; but there are some positive stuff about the 4-4-2 formation. With van Nistelrooy being rather quiet throughout, the second striker in the form of Koevermans found the goal and the netted the decisive winner. Comparing this new formation with the old 4-3-3 is like comparing the characteristics of 2 domestic common insects of the home, though. But in deploying 2 out-and-out strikers, the Dutch found the goal and won the Group G ticket to Euro 2008.

In the words of Koevermans himself – ‘It (the outcome) could have been worse’. I think that he knows that the team is suffering from some form of tactical coherence and comprehension of the actual game plan of van Basten and Koevermans had probably let spill some weakness in the team right now. Who was van Basten relying on as his key man? The playmaking duties were shared by both Sneijder and van der Vaart but only Sneijder really impressed me. The latter did make a good chance for van Nistelrooy early in the match which the Real Madrid man shot straight at goalkeeper Jonathan Joubert but he had an average game in my judgment.

Van Basten spoke of the ‘lack of maturity’ in the current squad and I won’t want to agree with his view even though he has better opinion of the squad judging from his work with these players. If players like van Nistelrooy, playing reasonably well for Real Madrid, can’t do well for the Oranje and against weaker opposition – something’s wrong. If players like Sneijder, Seedorf and van der Vaart do not perform well and create sufficient chances for van Nistelrooy, there’s something even more wrong. I did not say that the Dutch played poorly that day – they just lacked the certain incisiveness and the attacking panache to create goals. The Arsenal faced a similar problem 2 seasons ago – opponents simply bottled themselves up in front of goal and counterattacked when given the opportunity. Yes, that sounded familiar and obvious, but that’s the fact. If Luxembourg didn’t play a steely defence right in front of their penalty box, it’d be rather terse to imagine the likely result, and playing away from home as well.

By qualifying for the Euro 2008 competition, the Dutch are still aiming to make it good 20 years after winning their only major tournament in Euro 1988 with van Basten being instrumental in that earlier tournament. He’d be requiring more than just the type of flair and skill for his goal against the Bolsheviks to lead this current team to another tournament victory. Don’t expect fireworks from the orange side of next year’s footballing party, though. 2nd round may be possible – but not the semi-finals at all. Hell, if they get the chance to face the likes of Brazil or even Argentina – the current Oranje personnel may find life as inheritors of a traditional legacy too hot to handle. Have faith anyway, fellow Oranje fans….

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