With a strong team and a national treasure in charge the Netherlands are well placed for a good World Cup, but their draw does get very tough.
For a nation to miss out on just one qualification for a World Cup finals can have a significant effect on an entire generation. Along with Italy, the Netherlands were one of two giants of European international football to fall short in 2018. Beaten three times in ten qualifying matches during those World Cup qualifiers, they were knocked out in a race for second place with Sweden on goal difference, with France four points clear at the top of their group.
And for a talented group of players, both then and now, that has had ramifications. It’s difficult to believe that a player of the calibre of Virgil Van Dijk is making his debut in the finals of the competition at 31 years of age, but that’s how a failure to qualify can impact upon a player’s international career.
But this time around, the Dutch are in the Middle East and they’re feeling confident. Despite losing their first match in Turkey, they failed to lose any of their remaining nine and qualified with a comfortable five-point buffer over third-placed Norway. And they followed that by only dropping two points in their entire group in the Nations League, meaning that they are through to the finals of that competition next year and will be hosting it too.
Their draw has been favourable, and they’ve been a little fortunate elsewhere, too. Qatar, Ecuador and Senegal feels like as comfortable a draw as possible. Certainly they will have seen nothing in the opening fixture between Qatar or Ecuador to worry them too much, in particular from Qatar, who look like a strong contender for the weakest host nation in the history of the World Cup. Senegal have lost Sadio Mane to injury but remain a considerable threat.
Should they get through the group stage, the knockout stage draw has opened up a slightly more mixed set of fortunes. The winners and runners-up in their group will play the winners or runners-up in Group B, which features England, USA, Iran and Wales. The Netherlands would likely fancy their chances of winning this, but doing so would set up a substantially greater challenge: a quarter-final with Argentina. Should they get to the final, they’ll have earned it.
Injury news has been mixed. Frenkie de Jong and Memphis Depay have both had muscle injuries this season – Depay misses the Senegal game with his injury – and it’s possible that a lack of depth in the squad could cost them, should they use this group as the start of a run to the latter stages of the competition. Otherwise on the injury front, Georginio Wijnaldum’s absence with a fractured shin has been known since the start of the season, and Mattijs de Ligt had a couple of injuries in the weeks before the tournament but has been seemed fit to travel.
And then, of course, there’s the small matter of the heat and the humidity. On match days, the heat may be tempered somewhat by air conditioning inside the stadia, but humidity – Qatar is one of the most humid countries on earth because of its geographic position on the Gulf, and November and December tend to be its most humid months – could be an issue. The best type of conditioning is usually acclimatisation, but that’s the one thing that the tightness of the schedule has not afforded them this time around.
The Netherlands historical record once they reach the finals of the World Cup is very good indeed. They’ve qualified for the finals eight times since 1974, and have reached the final three times and the semi-finals twice from those eight. They’ve never been eliminated from the group stages of a World Cup – their defeats in 1934 and 1938 came in straight knockout tournaments – and have only failed to get past the last 16 twice. It’s an exceptional record, one that the Netherlands have achieved this so regularly that we tend to overlook just how well they’ve tended to perform once they’ve reached the finals.
And of course, the coach is a national treasure in the Netherlands. Considering his serious health issues, we’re lucky to be getting a tournament out of Lous van Gaal. Van Gaal has been scheduling radiotherapy treatment for his prostate cancer around training sessions, and has used the opportunity of his own illness to spread awareness. For Van Gaal, who lost his first wife to cancer at just 39 years old, this is personal.
The Netherlands team of 2022 may not have quite the star power of the past, but they’re in form, relatively untroubled by injuries, and have a coach who seems most at home when he’s in charge of the national team. The group draw was kind, and they won’t have seen anything to fear from the opening game between Qatar and Ecuador. All should seem set relatively fair.
But as a team that has reached the World Cup final on three occasions without having won it, there is always a small degree of expectation hanging over the Netherlands team when the World Cup comes around. No-one expects a second coming Johan Cruyff or Marco Van Basten, but names such as this do place a certain degree of pressure on all those who come to pull on that famous orange shirt.
Winning the tournament feels like it may be a stretch too far. That favourable draw ends abruptly should they reach the quarter-final, especially if the prospect is that they may have to play Argentina and Brazil in successive matches to reach the final. But after the disappointment of not even making it to the finals four years ago looking very much behind them, there are few more experienced coaches who could be taking charge of them, and the World Cup finals always do feel like a slightly better place for knowing that the Dutch should have a strong team. A quick look at their historical record in the World Cup finals shows that we discount them at our peril.
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