Depay to miss Netherlands opener but Van Gaal expects to improve on 2014 bronze

AFP

Memphis Depay will not feature in the Netherlands' World Cup opener against Senegal, but coach Louis van Gaal remains optimistic for the tournament, believing this squad to be capable of improving on a third-placed finish at Brazil 2014.

Depay had been a doubt for Monday's match in Doha due to a hamstring injury that has limited him to only two LaLiga appearances at Barcelona this season.

Oranje coach Van Gaal, speaking to the media on Sunday, confirmed the forward would miss out against Senegal, suggesting his "idea of the match" centred around how the two teams would fare without their respective stars. Senegal's Sadio Mane is out of the entire tournament.

Depay was involved in more goals in European qualifying for Qatar 2022 than any other player, scoring 12 and assisting a further six in just 10 matches.

Van Gaal said: "Mane can break open a match, and I would say Senegal will really miss him. But the same applies to us. We are really missing our top scorer and the king of the assists."

However, the Netherlands boss had been aware a swift return was unlikely for Depay, adding: "We knew before the World Cup he had a different programme, a different schedule than the schedule of a player who is preparing for a match."

When he recovers, Depay will be tasked with leading the line for a Dutch side Van Gaal considers superior to his class of 2014 – the last team he took to a tournament in the second of three stints in the role.

The Netherlands reached the semi-finals on that occasion, losing to Argentina on penalties before beating Brazil in the third-place play-off.

Given Van Gaal's high opinion of this group of players and his own considerable experience, he expects results to follow – potentially culminating in a first World Cup triumph.

"I believe in this squad, this group of players," he said. "In 2014, we came third with a squad of lesser quality, I would say. With this group, I expect more.

"It all depends not only on technical skills and tactical skills but also a bit of luck that you score at the right time or that the others don't score.

"I think we could become world champion, but there are squads that are in my view of a higher level than my squad. The thing is how the squad deals with that, and there I think I may be able to benefit from a head start.

"I'm saying we can become world champion. Whether we become world champion is a separate issue, but I'm saying we can."

While Van Gaal would not confirm the identity of his starting goalkeeper, he hinted at Cody Gakpo getting the nod ahead of Davy Klaassen in Depay's absence, and there is no doubt who his captain is.

Van Dijk appeared next to Van Gaal, who said: "I have a wonderful captain next to me. I have worked with so many captains, and he is a truly great captain. That makes things easier."

But neither Van Dijk nor Van Gaal would answer political questions after Gianni Infantino's remarkable opening address the previous day.

"I am no longer going to speak about political issues," the previously outspoken Van Gaal said. "I'm focusing on this coming match.

"I put a full stop after all these issues after we invited the migrants to watch our practice session. I requested all my players also stopped doing that and put a full stop and focus on the match against Senegal."