Euro 2012 qual. - Eurospot: Dutch slip under radar
Eurosport-Yahoo!'s latest feature is Eurospot: a weekly focus on the build-up to the Euro 2012 finals next summer, profiling the teams, players and managers that will star in Ukraine and Poland, and reflecting on the big news stories around the tournament.
Such are the intricacies of UEFA’s qualifying system for the Euro 2012 finals, even as late as Wednesday afternoon the governing body itself was seemingly unaware of the fact that Netherlands had joined Italy, Spain and Germany in a clutch of blue-riband nations reaching the finals in Poland and Ukraine next summer.
Though the set of mathematical propositions involved in establishing Netherlands had reached the finals would not exactly trouble John Forbes Nash, it was only a couple of hours after a 2-0 victory over Finland in Helsinki’s Olympic Stadium that their passage was guaranteed thanks to a convoluted sequence of events that factored in an injury-time penalty save by Austria’s Pascal Grunwald to deny Turkey’s Arda Turan, who then headed against the post from the subsequent corner.
The sum of the matter was that with maximum points from their eight games, Netherlands were guaranteed of finishing as the best runners-up across the groups at the very least. But confusion still reigned, ensuring the Oranje’s qualification went somewhat under the radar.
It was hardly a fitting manner in which to qualify for a team that currently sits proudly atop the FIFA world rankings. But then again, those misleading sets of statistics are about as grounded in reality as an Arsene Wenger press conference.
That much was proved on Tuesday night when England, ranked fourth in the world, laboured to a 1-0 victory over a Wales team apparently situated 117th, behind Haiti, Guyana, Guatemala and the Faroe Islands.
Despite Netherlands' primacy in the international rankings - and the fact they are third favourites to win next year’s finals, behind Vicente del Bosque’s all-conquering Spain and Joachim Loew’s resplendent young Germany - the suspicion remains that Bert van Marwijk’s side have something to prove to the continent.
Despite extending their winning streak in qualifiers in international tournaments to 16 matches – a tally only bettered by the current Spain side who took theirs to 20 when hammering Liechtenstein 6-0 to qualify themselves - they are perhaps somewhat underrated.
It is a touch strange, because under Van Marwijk the Dutch are a formidable proposition. Victory over Finland moved the coach level with Rinus Michels, the architect of Total Football, on 30 wins as coach of the Oranje. Only Dick Advocaat (31), Marco van Basten (35) and pre-World War Two boss Bob Glendenning (36) have more. However, it is Van Marwijk who boasts the most impressive win percentage having registered 73 per cent.
Van Basten, his predecessor in the role, comes in second best at 67 per cent, underlining the recent success that Netherlands have enjoyed. However, of course, at major tournaments the current crop of players have suffered acute disappointment.
At Euro 2008, a masterful performance in the group stage – including a particularly impressive 3-0 win over Italy – led to somewhat misleading claims of the emergence of a new streak of Total Football, before Netherlands ran into Guus Hiddink’s Russia in the second round and suffered at the hands of the inspired Andrei Arshavin.
At the 2010 World Cup, under Van Marwijk, the legacy of Michels and Johan Cruyff was repudiated in brutal fashion as the Oranje surrendered the artistic high ground to the new disciples of Cruyff’s style, Spain, when losing the game and losing their heads in the final.
As Cruyff himself lamented: “I thought my country would never dare to play like this and would never give up its own way of playing… I don’t want to hang all 11 of them by the same rope, but almost… This nasty, vulgar, hard, closed game that wasn’t watchable and was barely football anymore, yes, with that they could trouble Spain. They lost anyway. They played anti-football.”
Perhaps the distasteful nature of their defeat in Johannesburg explains why Netherlands have lost some of their allure. As Simon Kuper explored in Issue Zero of The Blizzard, there was little enthusiasm among Dutch broadcasters to pick up TV rights in the wake of the World Cup, while attendances in the early stages of Euro 2012 qualifying were also distinctly unimpressive.
It was no coincidence that Nigel de Jong – whose karate kick to the chest of Xabi Alonso became the unwittingly iconic image of what Cruyff termed Netherlands' “anti-football” – was symbolically excluded from the squad after his leg-breaking challenge on Newcastle’s Hatem Ben Arfa at the start of the 2010-11 season as Van Marwijk sought to demonstrate evidence of a cultural shift in his side.
De Jong's exile to the naughty step - since lifted - allowed players such as Kevin Strootman, who scored a glorious opener against Finland on Tuesday, to shine in his stead.
But while Netherlands are still seeking to recapture the sheen that they surrendered in South Africa, in the meantime Spain continue to dominate the scene and Germany attract praise and envy in equal measure for their thrilling, youthful performances.
Netherlands are in the shadow of their two rivals despite scoring 34 goals in eight qualifiers, including an 11-0 rout of San Marino last week. Van Marwijk, attempting to shake off the stigma of Johannesburg, is trying to extract even more potency from his players.
"I am satisfied with the number of opportunities we created," he said after the win over Finland, which was only finally decided when Luuk de Jong struck three minutes into added time. "But our finishing was not good. I think that's bad. That must be better, because then you decide the match much earlier. This was a game where we have should have won by a difference of five or six but, if one of their chances goes in, it can easily be 1-1. This was not our best game."
Neither was it UEFA's best night. The governing body might have missed that Netherlands had reached its showpiece event, but Van Marwijk's dangerous side will surely loom large in the collective consciousness when the tournament begins in June.