Koeman shrugs off hiccups and insists Netherlands have fighting chance

<span>Ronald Koeman makes final preparations for the Netherlands’ first match and is confident his squad is strong enough despite injuries.</span><span>Photograph: Hollandse Hoogte/Shutterstock</span>
Ronald Koeman makes final preparations for the Netherlands’ first match and is confident his squad is strong enough despite injuries.Photograph: Hollandse Hoogte/Shutterstock

Welkom Oranje!” is the loud Dutch welcome on billboards dotted around the factory city of Wolfsburg, home to the Netherlands for the next few weeks; many of Ronald Koeman’s side have a direct view of the steaming chimneys of the mammoth Volkswagen plant – the size of about 700 football pitches – from their plush hotel rooms opposite. Those words sit above what can only be described as a little friendly one-upmanship from the locals. “Aber nach Berlin fahren wir”, but we are going to Berlin, which will host Euro 2024’s showpiece finale.

That all feels a while away yet but the Netherlands will board a Deutsche Bahn train – hopefully theirs runs on time – to the capital for their final Group D match, against Austria, by which point they will hope to have proved why they, too, can go the distance despite the endless injury-shaped hiccups that hampered preparations. First they have an opener against Poland in Hamburg on Sunday to navigate. Regardless, back home the mood is bright if not realistic, evidenced by the colourful Marktweg street in The Hague, which has been given considerably more than a lick of paint by residents intent on showing their support.

Related: Euro 2024 team guides part 15: the Netherlands

Should the Dutch be among those fancied to go all the way? “There are really strong nations,” says Koeman, who won this competition with his elder brother and now longtime assistant, Erwin, in 1988. “I think Holland is one of them but in my opinion there is not a big favourite. Maybe France a little bit more than the rest because they have a lot of experience – they have already won big tournaments but it will be an open fight between different nations, and one of them is Holland.”

The start of training on Saturday, at Wolfsburg’s AOK Stadion, where the Bundesliga club’s women’s team play matches, had players and staff in hysterics as the conditioning coach, René Wormhoudt, played ringleader in a game akin to tag and inside the Dutch camp at least they insist the painful absences of the midfielders Frenkie de Jong and Teun Koopmeiners, owing to ankle and groin problems respectively, have been parked, mentally compartmentalised at their pre-tournament training camp in Rotterdam. Arrival in Wolfsburg represented a fresh start, even if Brian Brobbey, who missed full training on Saturday, is the latest injury concern with a hamstring problem. Doubts over Brobbey, who is expected to be available to face France next Friday, prompted Koeman to call up the Bologna striker Joshua Zirkzee before this Friday’s cut-off.

At the time Zirkzee, who missed the end of the Serie A campaign with a hamstring injury, had not long started his holiday at Disney World in Florida and just like the versatile Chelsea full-back Ian Maatsen, who was on a yacht in Mykonos when the call came on Tuesday, he had to quickly make tracks for Germany. At pains to ease any disappointment, Disney Land Paris reached out to Zirkzee to tee up an end-of-tournament trip. Things happened so quickly for Maatsen, who played in the Champions League final for Borussia Dortmund, that his father, Edward, hand-delivered his boots after driving from Vlaardingen, in South Holland province, to Wolfsburg, via Dortmund.

They are hurried if not mildly amusing snapshots of the nature of late call-ups but also serve to illustrate the hurdles Koeman has faced. It has not been straightforward. Since returning to the role of head coach after replacing Louis van Gaal following the World Cup in Qatar, Koeman has wanted to partner Barcelona’s De Jong with the Milan midfielder Tijjani Reijnders but has been unable to do so. Since Euro 2024 qualifying began last year, De Jong and Memphis Depay, who is six goals shy of breaking Robin van Persie’s goalscoring record, have featured in four and two competitive games respectively. Depay, however, has started the Netherlands’ past four matches, all friendlies, the last two of which they won 4-0, against Iceland and Canada.

“In qualifying we had injuries all the time but it is not about one or two players,” Koeman says. “I think the squad is really strong, we can survive in positions with other players who have experience. It is a big group of players with a lot of qualities and experience, with talented youngsters. There is no point focusing on injured players when preparing a team because you can’t play with them. You need to put all of your attention on the rest of the team.”

With the negatives suppressed, there is a place for quiet optimism. The Dutch have arguably the best defender in the world in their captain, Virgil van Dijk. Denzel Dumfries and Jeremie Frimpong, who may have to settle for a place on the bench despite an extraordinary double-winning season with Bayer Leverkusen, are two of the game’s most exciting full-backs. There is a sense this could be the time when the 21-year-old Xavi Simons explodes on the international stage. Koeman has been wooed by Simons’s imagination, initiative and spark.

Midfield is the obvious cause for concern but there are plenty of pluses and any lingering frustrations will surely be soothed by Poland missing their sharpest tool in Robert Lewandowski, who will be among the substitutes but only in a cheerleading capacity as he steps up his recovery from a hamstring injury.