Benelux Hostilities – Anderlecht Ajax Europa League Preview

As Hermann Van Donk pointed out in the superb book Brilliant Orange, that Holland “always says that the Germans are arrogant – but we are arrogant towards the Belgians. These are very normal feeling that you have between neighbouring countries”

This attitude was best illustrated in 1999 when the two nations shared a manic 5-5 draw. The defining moment falling to Patrick Kluivert, who had the goal at his mercy, but goaded the Belgian defence to tackle him as he tapped it in.

Over the years, Dutch and Belgian clubs have traded talent constantly, from Rob Rensenbrink’s flourishing career at Anderlecht to today, as Jan Vertonghen’s defensive attributes are vital to Ajax. This mutual relationship is coupled with a friendly rivalry between the European neighbours. They met in the Cup Winners Cup of  1988 (between Mechelen and Ajax), with the Belgians shocking the world, but in general, pragmatic Belgium has been in the shadow of its more flamboyant neighbour

But surprisingly their two biggest clubs, having shared almost 60 domestic championships between them, had never met in European competition until last year’s Europa League group stage. But 12 months on, the last 32 draw put these two greats together to tussle once again. You could argue it was a draw neither wanted, both incredibly respectful of each before the tie.

Mohamed Moallim is your guide for AFC Ajax, whilst I’ll do my best to outline the dangermen of RSC Anderlecht. It promises to be a free-flowing fest of football and the match of the round. Well for us two anyway.

RSC Anderlecht

Strengths and Key Players

Let’s get the obvious candidate out of the way. Les Mauves’ prized asset and wonderkid Romelu Lukaku normally leads the line in a 4-3-3 formation. He’s been linked to just about every European juggernaut there has been, since bagging 20 goals in his first full season at Anderlecht, at just 16. I’m fairly certain you will have heard the comparison to Didier Drogba as well, in terms of the teenager’s immense strength and power for his age. It is a truly phenomenal thing to see; George Leekens has already used him (fairly unsuccessfully so far) as the figurehead of a fluid team and his influence is huge.

Take last weekend for example: Anderlecht chose to rest Lukaku for the game against Cercle Brugge. Even against ten men they struggled to break down the ultra-defensive Cercle. Jacobs put him on (replacing Tom De Sutter) in the second half to try get his team that vital goal, which they did in the 90th minute.

 

Talisman, Mbark Boussoufa (Picture courtesy of Kzel)

The breakthrough came from inspirational winger Mbark Boussoufa. The Morroccan narrowly edged out Lukaku to win his second Belgian shoe. He is key to their system, creating on the wing then cutting inside and switching positions with Jonathan Legear which causes havoc. Of course this game will be probably more important to him than anyone, having learnt his trade through the Ajax youth-system. As high as mark of class as any.

Others players to look out for include recent Argentinian call-up Lucas Biglia, who orchestrates the midfield with wonderful passes – a very similar player to Andrea Pirlo, complete with Loreal hair. He’s aided well by Guillaume Gillet, a very flexible midfielder.

The goalkeeper, Silvio Proto broke a club record this weekend, having now gone 840 minutes without conceding in the league. Once accused of being erratic with his tendancy to rush towards any attacker, he now has cemented his place as Belgian’s No. 1.

Weaknesses

It may seem harsh, and possibly ludicrious to some, to criticise a defence that have conceded just 14 times in the league this season. But when put up against much tougher opponents, Zenit St. Petersburg for example, the usually rock solid defence tend to crumble in awe of their opponents. The centre-back pairing of Hungarian Roland Juhasz and Czech Ondřej Mazuch have been almost everpresent for Les Mauves, forming a great understanding. But you have to feel they will be tested severely by Ajax’s forwards. Mazuch is only 21, and has little experience at this level so could be the prime man to target.

Right-back, Marcin Wasilewski has fought back from a career-threatening double leg-break and you’d expect with someone who had suffered such a bad injury, they would lose a yard of pace at least. ‘Wasil’ scored against Zulte Waregem in December and immediately ran to the away fans and thumped his badge with honour. A tremendous servant to the club, but having hit 30 and with said previous injuries, he could be the weak link.

Another huge problem with Anderlecht is their lack of strength in depth. Bar the obvious suspects, you wouldn’t expect any of the benched players, other than midfielder Kanu or US international Sacha Klještan to make an impact in any shape or form. Strikers Matias Suarez, Tom De Sutter and newly signed Dalibor Veselinovic are simply not good enough for this level. Without Boussoufa and Lukaku, they look incredibly average.

Form (in the league)

Anderlecht are currently in the midst of 15-game undefeated streak, which stretches back to the end of October. Right before that they were humbled 5-1 by bitter rivals Standard Liege, which seemed to give Jacobs’ team a wake-up call and they’ve not looked back. They currently sit three points clear of Genk at the top of the Jupiler Pro League and have yet to concede in 2011. Just the right kind of form to bring into European competition.

The manager – Ariel Jacobs

The veteran manager began his coaching career in the Belgian FA, managing various youth teams and nurturing new talent in arguably Belgium’s most exciting era in the late 1980’s into the 1990’s. He then became assistant to Wilfried Van Moer and current coach, George Leekens’ first tenure. He made the step-up to club management in 1998, managing RWD.

His first trophy was with now extinct club La Louviere in 2003, when he won the Belgian Cup. This was a fantastic achievement and Jacobs was (and still is) known for that nurturing of talent, giving Peter Odemwingie his break in Europe for example. Eventually he wound up at Anderlecht as assistant coach to Franky Vercauteren (strangely enough his rival for the title this year, since he’s at Genk). This seemed an appointment in waiting, and Vercauteren left in November 2007.

Jacobs had to wait until last year to taste championship success, ending the dominance of Standard Liege for the time being at least. His policy of integrating youth players into the side has reaped dividends on the pitch and certainly off it too, with an astronomical fee for Lukaku expected in the next transfer window.

AFC Ajax

Strengths

Historically, Ajax’s strengths have been its attacking play. This still applies today, even though they are a far cry from some of their glorious sides of the past, they still play to attack.

With Luis Suárez departing in late January for Liverpool, it diminished somewhat – the Uruguayan was responsible for 35 out of Ajax’s impressive tally of 106 goals in the league last season – if you also add what else he brings, it’s a massive loss if an adequate replacement isn’t found soon. Although, Suárez hardly featured in Frank de Boer’s XI, due to a domestic ban he was serving prior to his move.

De Boer’s arrival after Martin Jol’s departure in early December brought a feel good factor back to the club. On the pitch he reverted Ajax back to their traditional 4-3-3, and more emphasis on wing-play and having an able playmaker playing off a number 9.

The goals haven’t flown in at an incredible rate but he has somewhat rekindled some players, who have already shown more than they did in the first half of the season.

Weaknesses

If attack is the teams strength, then defence/defending is the weakness. In saying that Ajax doesn’t have a bad defence theoretically (on paper) Gregory van der Wiel is one of the brightest young right fullback around, Jan Vertonghen has been Ajax’s most consistent player and a all round talent and Toby Alderweireld has come on strong.

What lets them down is the concentration level, if one nods off then chaos ensues.

The left-full back position has been a worry, especially as Urby Emanuelson has left – even though it’s not really his best position De Boer would rather trust him than say Anita. Right now it’s held by Daley Blind, despite the immense talent he posses, I’m of the mind that it’s too not his best role.

Another weakness stems from the strength, the tempo, De Boer in the system he wants to play, requires quick movement. So far the play has been languid which tends to mean any build-up or counterattack is broken down. It’s still early days in his tenure, but this is one area he would like to correct immediately.

Key players

With Suarez gone, Ajax has to look for other players to emerge from the shadows and take a great degree of responsibility. There are some candidates, and good ones. Siem de Jong whose been a mainstay in the team for the past year has emerged as De Boer’s number 9 of choice, despite being a natural midfield he’s taken to the role of playing the false #9 – he keeps the ball moving, holds it well and allows team mates involved in the play and he has the knack of finding the goal.

Another player is the rejuvenated Miralem Sulejmani, often played as a left-forward under Jol. It looked like he would be surplus to requirement last summer, but a possible loan move to West Ham broke down but its under De Boer that he is showing glimpses of the player that Ajax broke the bank for – playing as a right-forward, Sulejmani has everything to succeed, his dribbling is a strong suit and so is his finishing, taking on a fullback is no problem and so is crossing. He has become the face of De Boer’s tenure so far, he or Christian Eriksen.

Christian Eriksen, another of Europe's most exciting emerging talents (Photo courtesy of Martini DK)

The 19-year-old Danish sensation was a bit-part player under Jol (which is fair enough) but he’s now a crucial component in the makeup of the team. As a trequartista, Eriksen pulls the strings – though he’s not known to be a proven goal scorer, it’s his vision, passing and playmaking abilities that excite De Boer more than anything, and as soon as he took charge he highlighted Eriksen as the one who could take Ajax back to the top. A player mature for his age, he has spoken of his desire to stay at the club to develop instead of moving elsewhere, and there are a plenty of suitors.

Form (in the league)

As a season overall, it’s not been the best. What started as a promise faded as Jol’s tactics became stale and players frustrated. De Boer revitalised but a 3-0 defeat away to FC Utrecht derailed any comeback for the league, they’ve since gone on to record wins but a recent 2-2 draw at Roda means the side are 5 points behind the joint leaders PSV and FC Twente. Of course that lead can be cut down but with games running out Ajax’s priority could mean qualifying for the Champions League for next season becomes the major goal.

The manager

One of Ajax’s greatest players, Frank de Boer played under Louis van Gaal in Ajax’s great side of the mid 90’s with a degree of success. That greately inspired his footballing vision and how he wants Ajax to play.

This role is his first major one and becomes only a select few to have managed the side after previously playing for the club with distinction, before the role his major position was Bert van Marwijk assistant with the Dutch national team that got to the World Cup final.

At the same time he worked at De Toekomst, Ajax’s fabled youth academy, and it’s this education and expertise of the future talents that might have gotten him the job – the cynic in me see’s a couple of first team players leaving in the summer. If Ajax decide to invest by bringing through some of the young talents then who better to coach them.

Already the likes of Jody Lukoki, Lorenzo Ebecilio and Araz Özbiliz (albeit he played one game under Jol, after being pressured into playing with wingers) have made their debuts and featured under him.

So there we have it, a quick guide into Belgium and Holland’s most successful teams. Here’s an interesting stat: Anderlecht have played ten games against Dutch opposition with a record that reads W8 D2 L0. Only one winner then…but for balance here’s Edgar Davids goal in that ten goal thriller:

World Cup Preview – Final Fight

Jules Rimet

So after a month of packed full of national team scandals, old powers returning to their glory days and Diego Maradona being Diego Maradona, we finally reach the zenith of the World Cup: The Final.

There’s also the 3rd place play-off, a game not many sides care about but often produces decent games, France 98 being the best example there.

Most people are licking their lips at the prospect of a new World Champion being crowned. The Netherlands for all their talent they’ve produced since the Total Football generation deserve it. But so do the greatest international side for approximately 10 years, maybe more. I wouldn’t mind either side winning it, mainly as finally one of them gets rid of the ‘underachiever’ tag.

I thought both semi-finals were brilliant in different ways, with the better sides coming out on top with the exertion of pressure paying off to defensive organisation.

Holland vs Uruguay was a pretty tepid first half, enhanced by the goal of the tournament from Giovanni Van Bronckhorst. He’ll bow out of the sport on the grandest stage in world football.  A fitting final match for a great left-back. His goal as rightly pointed out by Clive Tyldesley (who was flying solo on commentary as Jim Beglin was poisoned by him pre-match) was indeed a very different goal to the one the Dutch scored against Italy in Euro 2008. That’s correct Clive because all goals are different. Audacious drive is the best way to describe it.

Gio joins Bergkamp and Van Basten in the 'Dutch Wonder Goal Hall of Fame' Photo:Daily Mail

Gio rallied the Dutch troops ahead of Sunday’s showdown. He said:

The last game in my career and it’s a World Cup final. What can you say? It could not be more beautiful. I hope it will be the most beautiful game of my life. For everyone, it will be the game of their life. By quitting I can close the book on a whole part of my life. I will do everything I can to with the team and staff to bring the World Cup to the Netherlands. That would be a fantastic finish.”

Zidane probably said the same thing four years ago. But I hope for Gio’s sake he doesn’t follow in the same tradition.

Uruguay played a lot better than I thought they would minus Suarez. Their equaliser in the first half showed us that once again the Dutch defence is flawed, especially down the middle as Cavani dragged them out of position for Diego Forlan to fire in. Stekelenburg could have done better as well.

The changing point was Marwijk bringing on Rafael Van Der Vaart for the injured Demy De Zeeuw. Holland pushed forward and got their reward. The second goal was slightly controversial, but the offside was so marginal. You’d be a massive pedant to lambaste the referee for that. He and the linesmen got worse things wrong. The third goal was a superb team move as Holland finally attacked down the left.

Uruguay shouldn’t be too disheartened because they’ve been superb throughout. Diego Forlan’s finally being recognised as a superb player, but anyone outside English punditryland would know he’s been prolific for about 5 years now.

On to Germany Spain, which was in my opinion, the best game I’ve seen this World Cup. Why? Passing perfection from both sides, but Spain were unreal at times. Sergio Busquets had 97%, Xavi 94% and Alonso 91%. They just don’t relent at times. On the flip side, Germany defensively were superb to hold them at 0-0 for so long, with Metresacker, Friedrich and Khedira sticking to David Villa like they were his own bodyguards.

Pedro had a good game as well, although tainted by not passing to Torres who had a airfield’s length of space. I’d still play him over Torres against Holland. He gives them pace and other options, which should work as Villa will not be as hounded during the final. I don’t rate the Holland back two as much the German’s defence. If Nigel De Jong and Mark Van Bommel tackle well, it could be a different story.

Germany can be very proud of their campaign, and I’d take a sneaky punt on them winning Euro 2012. They are bound to get stronger with more experience. The main reason they lost is because the link-up between Klose and Podolski was eradicated due to the tremendous Sergio Busquets intercepting like crazy. Spain’s defence was tested at times and they’ll probably have a tougher task against Sneijder and Robben.

Man of the Match Xavi congratulates Carles Puyol for his bullet 'British' header. Photos Getty Images/Clive Nelson

Xavi was man of the match for me. The man’s so consistent and that wasn’t his best game he’s had, but still tremendous. Opta Joe, the Twitter stat oracle that he is tweeted that Xavi touched the ball every 46 seconds which shows you how much Spain dominated and how central he is to his plans.

He said:

“We dedicate this victory to Spain. If we play on Sunday like we did today, we will have a great chance.We played as we wanted to. Now it is a final against Holland, a great team playing great football with great players in midfield and up front. We will have to impose our personality and football on them.”

So on to the prediction. I’m don’t really see the point of predicting 3rd place but I’ll go for Germany 2-0, if you really care.

The Netherlands vs Spain

Soccer City, Johannesburg, 19:30GMT

Probable Line-Ups:

Netherlands [4-2-3-1)  Stekelenburg, Van der Wiel, Heitinga, Mathjisen, Van Bronckhorst, Van Bommel, De Jong, Robben, Sneijder, Kuyt, Van Persie

Spain [4-2-3-1] Casillas, Ramos, Pique, Puyol, Capdevila, Iniesta, Alonso, Busquets, Xavi, Pedro, Villa

  • Strangely enough the two great nations have never faced each other in a competitive match. Both sides have steadily improved as the tournament progressed and you can’t argue that these two are the best currently in the world.
  • I see the game being very similar to the Holland Brazil game. Spain will relentlessly attack in the opening exchanges. If they stick to the same side, and they should do, then the midfield need to keep the ball as we know they can. The Barca midfield engine is key to this. Holland’s best shot is to counter when possible and use Robben down the right. Capdevila is the weak leak, although that’s extremely harsh considering the talent around him.
  • Spain feel like a Barcelona without Messi, loads of build-up without cutting edge. Villa will need to stay central without Torres. If Holland outmark Villa anywhere near as good as Germany, they have a decent chance.
  • Wesley Sneijder is my pick for the Ballon D’or. He’s Holland’s focal point, an extraordinary playmaker. If he’s allowed time, he can punish and also feed Van Persie. Pique’s looked shaky at times and this could also be exploited
  • Overall, I think the might of the Spain midfield will come out on top, and Spain’s pressure will eventually make way for their maiden World Cup.

Prediction: 1:2 (yeah Paul you octoprick, I’m ballsy, I predict the scores. Hope you enjoy being calamari soon)

There we have it. The World Cup previews have reached a climax. It’s been a great tournament and I’ve certainly enjoyed writing about it. So many moments to cherish, especially France floundering.

I’ll be back on Monday for a World Cup Awards Ceremony, which will rival the Oscars in terms of Kate Winslet moments. Raymond Domenech, you might not want to attend. Actually, Frenchmen beware.

And another happy moment for me. Miroslav Klose didn’t beat Ronaldo’s record. I like Klose but Ronaldo was phenomenal in the 90’s. So I leave you with his 15 landmark goals.

World Cup Preview – Semi Final Time

So much for that South American dominance. We saw it all in the quarter finals; Brazil’s total dominance in the first half followed by their complete capitulation in the second, mainly due to Felipe Melo. Surprisingly, this new Dunga version of Brazil who from now on shall be called Euro-Brazil, couldn’t defend anything in the air or from set-pieces. And of course Wesley Sneijder took full advantage of this. The Brazillian FA action in the aftermath was blunt and swift, Dunga was sacked within the amount of time it takes to get a takeaway pizza to your door. Still, Dunga should easily walk into a top European job.

The funniest post match quote was indeed from wanted man Melo who said:

“Anyway, I’ve had a good World Cup and today I had a good first half with the assist for Robinho’s goal. If we had won the World Cup, I would have given myself a 10 out of 10. We didn’t do it, so I will content myself with a six.”

Modest Melo. But really a six? A SIX? I can barely think of six things you did correctly. Even Gilberto Silva had a better tournament. Sorry, Melo my tournament view is clouded by a stamp like Rooney in 2006, well because that’s all Rooney’s done at a World Cup. He also said:

‘If I had meant to hurt Arjen Robben, he would have had a broken leg’

Felipe Melo in less hostile times for Brazil

Dead hard Felipe Melo, which is exactly the right stance to take when you have probably every Brazilian on your back for pretty much single-handedly destroying the national team’s tournament. Still, he’s got pre-season at Juventus to look forward to. Juve are a shoe-in for the losers of the World Cup award. Buffon injured, Cannavaro (who’s retired in Quatar now) and Chiellini having shocking tournaments. Only Christian Poulsen and Tiago seem safe.

I’m still not convinced by Holland. Yes, they are a much better side with Arjen Robben but they look so so poor at the back. They’ll still make the final but Germany or Spain should prosper with the attacking options at their disposal.

Next followed quite possibly the most controversial moment in the World Cup since Diego Maradona palmed it past Peter Shilton in ’86. Maybe.  I don’t want to go into this too much, but I agree with Zonal Marking (great tactical analysis site by the way) who said that the punishment of Suarez doesn’t fit the crime. He denied a certain goal, which he possibly could have headed, that sent Ghana out. Sure, any other person would have done the same thing after 120 minutes of football, but he cheated. Plain and simple. If Ghana are out, Suarez should be out for the same amount of time, not the one game he’s going to miss, like Thomas Muller will for two harsh bookings in 5 games.

People may say “Oh, he got caught, he’s been punished so he didn’t cheat”. That’s like saying a convicted murderer isn’t as bad as another murderer on the run. Fifa, please sort this out. We need the equivalent of a penalty try in rugby or even an direct free-kick on the line with no goalie plus stricter punishment. Then and only then will goal-line handballs stop.

That being said, Asamoah Gyan’s attempt at glory by smashing it through Fernando Muslera didn’t work. Ghana’s mindset was rattled and they lost on penalties. A sad end for Africa’s last team but they can be proud of their efforts, without doubt.

I have a bone to pick with ITV ‘pundit’ Marcel Desailly. You can’t support two nations. You played 116 times for France. I do realise you were born in Ghana but you made the choice Marcel.

Marcel Desailly clearly playing for France

Saturday’s games were slightly less controversial. Germany established themselves as tournament favourites after destroying yet another side with a weak defence. All credit to them, their counter-attacking football was masterful at times. A sad end for Diego Maradona but I’ll stand by original opinion that the man shouldn’t manage. I firmly believe that any manager would have got Argentina this far. Maradona has certainly exceeded my expectations, and also provided us with some superb touchline and press-conference moments.

As for Germany, they’ve done exactly what I’d thought they do. Get down to business without any fuss. Extraordinary that they’ve done this without their best player of the decade Michael Ballack (although this could well be debated with Miroslav Klose’s goalscoring record) and first choice goalkeeper. Thomas Muller is my pick for player of the tournament. Not only exceptional on the field but very articulate off it, as this proves. He said:

“England have so many top stars in their squad that they will always be part and parcel of the international football scene. But there are so many ‘alpha males’ in their squad. It is difficult to have so many alpha males and have them row in the same direction. You don’t only need chiefs. You also need a few Indians.”

And that is why Germany will now win the World Cup. Belief, team-spirit and ultimately a well-oiled machine. Germany are that good at tournament football, they’ve got a word for it: Turniermannschaft. Hard to back against them lifting the trophy for the fourth time now.

There is nothing of note to say about Paraguay vs Spain. Except several posts were hit and several penalties were missed. David Villa scored the winner and enhances his reputation whereas the rest of the global superstars have put in forgettable performances.

After that mammoth ramble, here’s how I see the semi-finals going:

Uruguay vs The Netherlands

Cape Town, Tuesday 6th July  19:30GMT

Possible Starting Lineups

Uruguay: [ 4-3-3 ] Muslera; M. Pereira, Scotti, Victorino, A. Pereira; A. Fernandez, Arevalo, Perez, Cavani; Abreu, Forlan

Holland: [4-2-3-1] Stekelenburg, Boulahrouz Heitinga, Mathjisen, Van Bronckhorst, Van Bommel, De Zeeuw, Robben, Sneijder, Kuyt, Van Persie

  • With Luis Suarez serving that suspension, Uruguay could either press Diego Forlan further forward or bring in Sebastian ‘El Loco’ Abreu. His penalty was superb against Ghana so he might get the nod plus it would mean keeping the system that’s got them this far. Uruguay will also miss their captain Diego Lugano and left-back Jorge Fucile. Both key players at the back. Diego Perez will have to play a blinder to keep the Dutch front four at bay.
  • Holland’s second half against Brazil was magnificent, and I was really impressed by Dirk Kuyt’s workload. Wesley Sneijder has been a brilliant play maker for the Dutch. Although Holland will miss Gregory Van de Wiel and Nigel De Jong, both bringing tough tackling to the side. This means we should see Khalid Boulahrouz and Demy De Zeeuw to replace them. Neither as threatening really.
  • I think Holland have enough to see off Uruguay, especially considering the amount of injuries Uruguay have. Holland finally hit peak-form against Brazil, and once Clockwork Oranje starts, it’s hard to stop. Expect Arjen Robben to maraude and marvel.

Prediction – 1-3

Germany vs Spain

Durban, Wednesday 7th July 19:30 GMT

Possible Lineups

Germany (4-2-3-1) Neuer, Lahm, Mertesacker, Friedrich, Boateng, Khedira, Schweinstiger, Trochowski, Oezil, Podolski, Klose

Spain (4-4-2) Casillas, Ramos, Pique, Puyol, Capdevila, Iniesta, Alonso, Busquets, Xavi, Villa, Torres


  • A repeat of the Euro 2008 final, these sides remain the two heavyweights in Europe. Germany have matured since then, and have been the best team in South Africa so far. Spain have underwhelmed slightly, but that’s pretty harsh considering they were given the favourite tag likely right after that Euro 2008 victory.
  • Germany’s main weakness is the back two and goalkeeper yet they kept out Argentina. Germany’s defence is better than many think, arguably because of the assistance of Sami Khedira, an unsung hero. Bastian Schweinstiger was given free-roam against Argentina and I don’t expect that happen here as much as Xabi Alonso will be able do what Javier Mascherano couldn’t.
  • Spain need to drop Fernando Torres, they won’t but should. Spain improve in the 2nd half of nearly every game I’ve seen as they bring on Cesc Fabregas or Jesus or Pedro or Llorente or David Silva (so many options). They didn’t need two holding midfielders in the earlier games and improved dramatically when they adopted another attacking midfielder. Although here, I think Del Bosque will play it safe. but has hinted that he could drop him.
  • Will Germany struggle without Muller? Possibly. Will they sit back as several players are one booking away from missing the final? Certainly. But I really fancy Germany here, especially Klose continues his great form and also if Schweinstiger is allowed to control the game especially with Muller missing. The momentum gained from the victories over England and Argentina could give them the impetus a la Italy in 2006.

Prediction 2-1

See you next time where we will discuss a Uruguay Spain final, as my predictions are always wrong. I wish I was 5-0 like Paul the Octopus.

Here’s the best thing of the World Cup so far….Heinze Smash

World Cup Preview – The Quarter Finals

Well that round certainly lived up to the hype. Many many talking points, but it seems fairly obvious to start with Germany vs England. I had a slight inkling that England were going to get a spanking but due to my blind patriotism, I decided to undermine my prediction.

As I said, the game would all come down to who was covering Ozil. In this case Gareth Barry took up that role and provided a truly underwhelming performance. He was meant to be the shield for Terry and Upson; that shield was metaphorically made out of crate paper and Germany stook 4 past the woeful defence. I felt sorry for David James as he’s played pretty well but had a pretty poor defence in front of him. I don’t even want to go into the whole Lampard goal as it would have made no difference at all to lacklustre England.

Downbeat England during Germany game

I could do a blog about everything that went wrong and how we can look to other national sides in an effort to improve the development of young players. But several respectable journalists have done this to much better effect than I could ever do, so I’d merely be reiterating them. Plus I could ramble all day about what’s wrong with the FA which is boring.

On to much less depressing issues. Paraguay and Ghana made the Quarter Finals for the first time. Ghana were brilliant against the U.S. and Kevin Prince Boateng continues to impress me. He’s made the step up to international level look effortless. Paraguay edged past Japan on penalties in quite possibly the dullest game so far, but to their credit, they provided a penalty master-class.

The heavyweights of Brazil, Argentina, Spain and Holland all came through their games, some easier than others. Brazil were relatively comfortable against Chile, and Chile can surely be proud of this campaign after bringing some flamboyance and also some hard tackling when pressing. Argentina Mexico was a great game, sealed with a terrific strike by Carlos Tevez. Unfortunately this game will be remembered for the second officiating blunder of the day, when it really should be remembered for being a terrific spectacle. Javier Hernandez scored a great goal as well, and I hope to see more of that at Old Trafford this season.

Spain and Portugal was fascinating tactically. Portugal looked the better side until Del Bosque brought on Llorente, who played well unlike Fernando Torres. Portugal capitulated and David Villa sneaked in past a lax Simao. Holland provided an efficient performance against Slovakia. Holland looked a lot better with Arjen Robben, and he scored the first in a 2-1 win.

I’ve left Uruguay last for a reason. I genuinely believe they could make the final. The front 3 have been sensational and it’s great to see Diego Forlan finally cast that lazy tabloid tag of being ‘forlorn’. Without doubt one of the best players this year.

So onward to the Quarter Final previews:

The Netherlands vs Brazil

Port Elizabeth, Friday 2nd July 15:00 GMT (BBC)

  • A reincarnated Total Football vs Dunga’s defensive policy. Maybe they’ll both cancel each other out. Ranking 4th and 1st respectively in the world, this has all the makings of a classic.
  • They last met in a World Cup in 1998, which was also a tight affair with Brazil coming out on top on penalties after Phillip Cocu and Ronald DeBoer both missed their spot kicks
  • Holland now with Robben look better with that injection of pace. Brazil have gone about their business with little effort but Luis Fabiano’s found his goalscoring boots at the right time. Juan and Lucio have done well and I think Van Persie will have to play a blinder to break them down
  • I don’t think Holland have been tested yet defensively and that will be their undoing if Robinho and Luis Fabiano play well.

PREDICTION – 0-2

Uruguay vs Ghana

Soccer City, Johannesburg  19.30 GMT (ITV)

  • Both sides can see the semi-final within grasp, a superb achievement for them with neither really expecting to form a run like this.
  • Uruguay front three of Diego Forlan, Luis Suarez and Diego Cavani have been the driving force behind the team, but have been well supported by the defence. Ghana on the other hand have arguably been led by Asamoah Gyan who’s scored most of their goals, his winner against the U.S. being the highlight.
  • I think the Black Stars don’t have enough at the back to keep Uruguay out, especially with some suspensions. They are also missing Ayew wh0’s been solid. Uruguay are missing key defender Diego Godin, the defensive clearance speciallist in the France game.

Prediction – 3-1

Argentina vs Germany

Cape Town, Saturday 3rd July 15:00 GMT (BBC)

  • The second titanic clash of the quarter finals. Diego’s dynamic Argentina versus ‘Yogi Love’s’ youthful Germany. Both sides have been clinical so far and have shown the best attacking football in the competition.
  • The key contest here is Messi vs Ozil. Both have been instrumental in their teams providing the foil to attack and also creating key chances. Both have exceptional off the ball movement.
  • With such great attacking players, both sides look decidedly average at the back. Germany have been flattered by poor opposition, and Manuel Neuer has looked flappable.  Also, at times whereas I still worry about Martin Demichelis but if Diego plays Burdisso, it might tighten them up a bit.
  • It’s only a matter of time until Messi scores. I see it being here. I’ve been convinced by the extrovert Diego Maradona and I think Argentina will edge a classic although I’m going to sit on the fence, and say a Germany win isn’t out of the realms of possibility if they show the camaraderie and efficiency of the England performance.

PREDICTION3-2

Paraguay vs Spain

Ellis Park, Johannesburg 19:30 GMT (BBC)

  • Paraguay have to be considered underdogs here, but their performances so far have been so inconsistent its impossible to say which Paraguay will turn up. They’ve been good defensively however and you’d have to think that’s what will be needed here. Antolin Alcaraz has been the standout centre-back at this tournament for me, which was a great move from Roberto Martinez at Wigan to sign him pre-tournament.
  • Spain have been underwhelming so far. Their tactics need fine tuning, for example I don’t think they need two defensive midfielder, so Del Bosque needs to drop Sergio Busquets or Xabi Alonso and put in either Pedro, Jesus Navas to add width and ideas.
  • Dropping Torres is also a good move in my book. He’s been terrible mainly as I don’t think he’s match fit. Del Bosque, put in Llorente or Cesc Fabregas behind Villa please.
  • Spain should win this easily but they’ve yet to show anything like they can produce (except David Villa). Paraguay have a certain gritty determination about them, and I think they’ll give it everything but fall short.

PREDICTION – 0-2

So that’s it. Let’s hope my record of prediction continues to be better than Mark Lawrenson and level with Paul the Octopus.

World Cup Preview – The Last 16

Well, so far, the World Cup has seen many talking points, arguably most off the field. The mass hysteria over the flight of the Jabulani football and the whurring of mutant bees around the grounds courtesy of that old friend, the vuvuzela. The French threatening a mutiny and also who could forget Robbie Earle selling his 36 tickets ( he had 400 in total for the tournament) for the Holland Denmark game to some lovely Dutch ladies. This World Cup has set a precedent for outrageous moments.

We’ve had some great footballing moments in a World Cup apparently littered with terrible games if you believe the pundits. But this only makes it more fascinating, some of the ‘dull’ games have been great tactical battles, others have been exactly that: dull (England Algeria, France Uruguay being the 2 main examples). At the end of the day, if you are a pundit moaning at getting paid for being at a World Cup, then you need to re-assess how much of a prat you are.

Some sides have fascinated, others have fallen flat at the first hurdle. Underdogs have shined in South Africa as well. New Zealand were unbeaten in the group stage but faced an flight back to Auckland whilst Italy became a country for Old Men after they finished bottom of Group F. Switzerland’s tight defensive unit defeated the pre-tournament champions elect, Spain and Germany once again proved their tournament mettle with some convincing displays. And of course El Diego’s faith in Saint Martin Palermo was proved right after he scored a goal. I honestly didn’t predict that.

Half the fun of this tournament has been the off-screen stuff (such as watching Diego Maradona waltz around in a rather fetching monochrome number) but we now reach crunch-time. The Last 16.

Throughout the years, we’ve had some unbelievable ties and this year will hopefully be no different. So here’s my look at the fixtures and how I see them panning out. (Editors Note: Chris Mayer is often wrong, he thought Italy would shock people this year, but not in the way they did)

Uruguay vs South Korea

Uruguay came out as winners of Group A, after some great performances notably against hosts South Africa. The draw against France was forgettable but they improved as the group wore on and look a very good side. Diego Forlan’s form has been sensational but other players have impressed me. Luis Suarez adopted a Pippo Inzaghi role, and was constantly offside against France but grabbed the winner against Mexico. They’ve also yet to concede a goal in the groups, but as we know things get tougher from here on in. Diego Godin and Nicolas Fucile have both been impressive at the back and were responsible for several clearances in the opening game. Midfielder Egidio Arevalo has also tough tackled in the midfield. I really rate this side.

South Korea finished runners-up in Group B, with the easy win over Greece being decisive in progression. They were taken apart by the glorious attacking football of Argentina however and just about got a draw against Nigeria. They’ve looked fairly tight throughout the group, minus one incident and the midfield has done a superb job in getting South Korea here. Ji-Sung Park, Park Chu Young and Kim Sung Yeung have all put in hard graft and provide the attacking threat that saw them score 5 goals in the groups. The defence was ripped apart in the last two games really and I think that will be their undoing here.

Prediction – 2-1

USA vs Ghana

A fixture that’s bound to have split loyalties for former wonder kid Freddy Adu. The US lumbered to the group winners spot after a late goal by the perennial Landon Donovan once again showing his talent. They made hard work of Algeria and Slovenia but their performance against England was fairly solid. I fear for their defence who were excellent against England but poor against Slovenia. The stand out players so far have been Donovan and Bradley.

Ghana finished runners up in Group D but weren’t entirely convincing either. They were great against Serbia, failed to capitalise on 10 men Australia and showed promise against Germany. One thing is clear, Asamoah Gyan has got them this far. He’s a great striker and has shone on the biggest stage. Ghana’s opening game performance was brilliant and they stunned Serbia with their passing and all-round better teamwork. Kevin Prince Boateng has played a blinder as well.

Tough one to call this but I think the US will edge it.

Prediction – 1-0

Germany vs England

The Battle of Bloemfontein. Every superlative possible will be used in the build-up to this mammoth clash. Even Franz Beckenbauer has been mud-slinging in the past few days. England wouldn’t have wanted this tie as early as it has arrived and are slight underdogs for me. They haven’t performed at all well in the group and even the Slovenian performance didn’t impress me despite being a marked improvement. The team hasn’t gelled well unlike the Germans who hit the ground running against Australia. However they aren’t one of the favourites and that performance was aided by a Pim Verbeek tactical meltdown.

Germany are beatable, but not for the reasons I’ve seen (weak centre back pairing). Mesut Ozil has been a revelation, hey I tipped him to do well beforehand, but other players have excelled as well, notably Friedrich, Muller and the international men of mystery, Lukas Podolski and Miroslav Klose.

I could probably do a blog about this game alone now I think about it, but the key area for me is who is going to stalk Ozil. Also if service to Klose is limited then, England could win this.

I don’t see it happening on the basis of what’s come before

Prediction – 2-0 (realistic result, if you want a outrageous patriotic one then 5-1 ENGLAND 😉

Argentina vs Mexico

This match is the one I’m most looking forward to, without being incredibly tense throughout. Both sides were the group stage pioneers in terms of fluid attacking football. Argentina boast world class talent in their front-line whilst Mexico’s team built up impressively from the back.

Argentina destroyed the rest group pretty much with the arsenal of Messi, Tevez, Higuain and others. But they weren’t without fault. The right hand side of the defence looked very ropey, particular Jonas Gutierrez, who isn’t a right back. Martin Demichelis had his moments of absolute idleness against South Korea, and he’ll hope that it doesn’t happen again.

Mexico looked reasonably strong at the back, especially off the ball which allows Rafael Marquez to support the centre backs, making them a fortress difficult to penetrate. Gio Dos Santos has been quite good too, making me wonder whether he could hack it at Spurs.

This will come down to Veron for me. If he’s on form, Argentina will walk this game. If not they may need extra time. I’ll plumb for the former option.

Prediction – 3-1

The Netherlands vs Slovakia

Well this was a minor turn up for the books. Not for Holland, they were expected to win the group but they’ve not exactly set the world alight. It took them a while to break down all three teams, and I think without Arjen Robben they lack pace and width. The turn around against Denmark came through young winger Eljero Elia and that injection of raw energy broke the Danish stronghold on the game. If Robben is back, I think Holland will motor and it worries me that they haven’t hit their peak yet.

Slovakia have blossomed. They were woeful against New Zealand and Paraguay. But against Italy they looked a much better outfit, mainly because of the shuffling of the team allowing Marek Hamsik to do what he does best and move further forward, becoming a real threat in the process. Robert Vittek was also impressive against the aging Italian stallions.

I feel Holland have enough to see off Slovakia. It’s a question of whether the Slovakian defence can handle pace, and I don’t think they can. Still this tournament has proved a great one for them.

Prediction – 2-0

Brazil vs Chile

This mouth-watering South American clash will indeed see a clash of styles. Brazil have become a tough defensive machine under fashionista Dunga whereas Chile are clearly gung-ho under Bielsa. Bit unfair on Brazil as they can turn on the style at will but in my opinion, Lucio and Felipe Melo are the representatives of their new defensive style. No nonsense possession football. Their group was tough and they are fully prepared for the knockouts. The Ivory Coast game showed their prowess for goalscoring.

Chile are without doubt my favourite team at this World Cup. The only team to use the 3-3-1-3 formation. Fluid counter attack style football make them a menacing side. But they will need to cut out the bad tackling, which like the Spain game will be forced by them as they press the Brazillians. The best players for Chile so far have been Alexis Sanchez and Mark Gonzalez, both men terrorising their full-backs.

I have also said if Brazil are going to lose at the World Cup it will be to a South American side. Not this one though, I feel Brazil will have too much for a depleted Chile side. Although their best central midfielders (Carmona and Fernandez) will be back, it won’t be enough

Prediction – 3-0

Paraguay vs Japan

This tie surprised me. I didn’t see either team being as good as they were, and I thought this would be Italy Denmark. Still, this game is massive for both sides, as the winner will make it the furthest they’ve made it in a World Cup. Paraguay were efficient in the group and the standouts for me have been new Wigan centre-back Antolin Alcaraz and Enrique Vera. Even more impressive is they’ve done this without Oscar Cardozo most of the time, arguably their best player

Japan have also quietly gone about their business. They were good against a weak Cameroon side, narrowly beaten by the Dutch before stunning against Denmark. Keisuke Honda is the key man for them after dispatching his superb free-kick. The midfield has been outstanding for Japan. Endo, Honda and Hasebe are the driving force in midfield and they have to control the game if Japan are to win here.

Once again, two very equal sides. I fancy an upset if Japan play as well as they did against Denmark

Prediction 1-2

Spain vs Portugal

An Iberian derby to finish. This is arguably the closest game to call. Spain have proved themselves to be vulernable, after the defeat to Switzerland. Both soon after, order was restored, although they started slowly against Chile, ultimately they were the better team. The pre-tournament favourites face a tough task here, but a familiar enemy in Portugal, who’ve performed much better than I though they would (even with two 0-0’s).

Their 7-0 demolition of North Korea proved that up-front they can overpower weaker teams. Against Spain that’s not going to happen but I see them scoring. Defensively Portugal have looked immaculate, yet to concede. Fabio Coentrao has been magnificent but Raul Meireles has performed way above the levels I thought he could. Given space, he could punish the Spaniards.

If Puyol and Pique hold steady, then Spain should win this. But not comfortably.

Prediction – 2-1

So there we are, the last 16 teams left have been previewed and there some terrific ties in prospect. I leave you with my favourite match so far. Slovakia Italy. Truly remarkable game.


World Cup Preview – Group E

Like Group C, there seems to be one team who’s expected to walk the group whilst the rest battle for second spot. Denmark have managed to build a strong side based on a sturdy defence. Japan showed England that they aren’t lightweights either and play nice possession football. Then there’s the African heavyweights Cameroon, who have one of the best strikers in the world, Samuel Eto’o. The battle between these three sides will certainly be intriguing.

DENMARK

The Danes have arguably built their best side since their Euro 92 victory, although their last visit to a World Cup was also impressive. In 2002, they looked comfortable in the group until being taken apart by England. After missing out in 2006, they’ve recovered and rebuilt a fairly robust team for South Africa. Their qualifying group looked tough, with Portugal and Sweden also in there, but Denmark ran away with the group. They beat both away from home. Very impressive.

STRENGTHS

The spine of the team is where the Danes excelled in qualifying. They have two young and talented centrebacks in Liverpool’s Daniel Agger and Palermo’s Simon Kjaer. Kjaer is highly rated across Europe and has been linked with many top Premier League clubs. A good performance in this tournament will certainly improve both player’s value in club football. Denmark only conceded 5 goals in qualifying and kept 7 clean sheets, so this water-tight pairing should do well. Failing that, Per Koldrup is a decent back-up.

Stoke goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen proved a worthy successor to the Great Dane Peter Schmeichel, but an elbow injury late in the season could be bad news for the Danes.

The central midfield pairing of Christian Poulsen (Juventus) and Daniel Jensen (Werder Bremen) is also strong. Poulsen tends to sit deep and help the back four when needed, but can often run into space and prove a real handful. Jensen’s a hard tackling midfielder and is also well discplined.

WEAKNESSES

Don’t expect this side to dazzle the crowd with exciting wing-play, because they simply don’t have any quality on either side. Jesper Gronkjaer and Martin Jorgensen are both over 30 and won’t be running past many centre backs. The problem is even worse further back. Blackburn’s Lars Jacobsen isn’t up to the quality of the rest of the defence and AZ’s Simon Poulsen doesn’t have enough international experience.

Denmark also lack a top quality forward to support lone frontman Niklas Bendtner. Soren Larsen plays for German second divison side Duisburg and Mikkel Beckmann plays for Danish side Randers. Both don’t seem to have the quality to excel at the World Cup. European journeyman, Jon Dahl Tomasson was brilliant in 2002, but he’s 33 now. This underlines one of the key problems the Danish have: this side has a lot of veterans and a lot of inexperienced players.

KEY PLAYER – Niklas Bendtner

I realise several of you will question this selection. Admittedly Niklas Bendtner is incredibly inconsistent at club level but for Denmark, he’s used effectively. Bendtner is the king of tap-ins, and even then he’ll miss a few. He’s also struggling with fitness which also doesn’t bode well. But if the midfield feed him well, then Bendtner should play well

MANAGER – Morten Olsen

He’s been in charge for almost a decade now, and over that time has managed to create two very good Danish sides. He loves attacking football, which is the main reason Denmark won their group. With some very creative players at his disposal, he could well. However his unwilling to change tactics could be his downfall.

ODDS OF LIFTING THE WORLD CUP – 80/1

PREDICTION – Too many questions surrounding fitness, they could make it out of the group if Bendtner plays well. But will get knocked out soon after.

JAPAN

We saw a lot of this side in England’s friendly and I don’t think anyone expected Japan to prove a challenge for England. But they were pretty impressive, holding the ball well and proving that England’s defending from set-pieces isn’t as great as we thought. Japan come into the tournament hated by their own media, mainly believing that Okada was a poor appointment. They have some good players but can they make it out of the group?

STRENGTHS

Japan have a history of producing top class midfielders for example Shensuke Nakamura and Hidetoshi Nakata. Yashuito Endo is a versatile midfielder who can act as an anchor or the creative man of the four. Makoto Hasebe has been impressive at Wolfsburg and will provide the attack down the right. Experience is provided by Shensuke Nakamura, who often scored superb free-kicks at Celtic and now at Espanyol. If the midfield generals perform to their absolute best, then Japan can pass it around like the best of them, and also be a threat from set-pieces.

Marcus ‘Tulio’ Tanaka proved, apart from scoring great own goals, that he’s a brutal centre-back. Dirty, yes, but he may be the inspiration that Japan desperately need. He can also score from corners as proved against England.

WEAKNESSES

Like Denmark, the striker pool isn’t great , bar Keisuke Honda. They lack a hitman up front which can often be the turning point for mediocre teams to make it out the group. With all their flair in midfield, you need someone to finish the moves off. Shinji Okazaki is likely to lead the line, although against England he had several chances and didn’t finish them. This suggests that Japan will struggle to break through tougher teams, and this is certainly an issue when you’re considering the weakest in the group.

KEY PLAYER – Keisuke Honda

The CSKA attacking midfielder has shown his quality in the Champions League this season and he’ll have to help the forward line if Japan are to make it any further than a group stage exit. Another great free kick taker.

MANAGER – Takeshi Okada

A football manager with a worse press relationship than Jose Mourinho in Italy. Hated when he took over, and has done little to make amends since. Harsh considering his record against big teams isn’t too bad. Reluctance to change players is his major weakness.

ODDS OF LIFTING THE WORLD CUP – 200/1

PREDICTION – Group stage exit, mainly as they’ve never won a World Cup game outside Japan.

CAMEROON

It would be very harsh to say that this team is based on one player. But that is unfortunately the case. Samuel Eto’o remains one of the best strikers in world football, renowned for his finishing and off-the-ball movement (in my opinion the best in the world for it). Although this hasn’t stopped Cameroonian legendary footballer and dancer, Roger Milla from criticising Eto’o saying he does ‘nothing’ for his country. Milla would do better sticking to Coca Cola adverts with the ubiquitous Ian Wright.

Out of the African sides, they have the easiest task to make the knockout stages. But this preview isn’t just about one man, let’s have a look at the rest of the squad.

STRENGTHS

Apart from Eto’o, other young players are really starting to shine, particularly Alex Song, Sebastian Basong and Benoit Assou Ekotto, both playing well this season for their English clubs. Jean Il Makoun is also a great central midfielder, often the hard tackler. He can also score from long range, however his place could be taken by Song.

Achille Webo will do his best to support Eto’o from the wings in a 4-1-2-3 formation. He has a very good scoring record at international level. Keeper Carlos Kameni is a superb shot-stopper as well. The younger generation have arrived, now is their time to show the rest of the world about African football.

WEAKNESSES

The defence doesn’t look capable of maintaining the performances shown in qualifying. Geremi was a sensational player 10 years ago but he’s past his best, and he’s hardly played this season for Turkish side Ankaragücü. Creativity could also be an issue as the midfield doesn’t have an outstanding candidate for the playmaker role.

KEY PLAYER – Alex Song

Finally showing the reasons why Arsene Wenger brought him to Arsenal very early on his career. Has filled in at centre-back this season. Occasionally lapses are his main problem and he’s certainly have to be exceptional against Holland and Denmark if they are to take anything from either game.

MANAGER – Paul Le Guen

Won Ligue 1 with Lyon consecutively for 3 years but been in the doldrums since. After his brief and torrid time at Rangers, he’s found himself in the hot seat here. Bit of enigma, and that’s putting it lightly. Talented manager but he’s found it tough to win over the fans.

ODDS OF LIFTING THE WORLD CUP – 80/1

PREDICTION – Team politics could undermine the best chance they’ve had since Italia 90, Le Guen’s unpredictability (plus not winning any warm up game) means a group stage exit for me.

World Cup Preview – Clockwork Oranje

When every World Cup comes around, everyone places an outside bet on Holland. Based on their qualifying campaign, it seems a very safe bet. Their football is certainly entertaining and at times, dazzling for the spectator. But when it comes to tournaments, the Dutch will often begin with performances full of flair and vigour, but then collapse in the late stages. So can this crop of flying Dutchmen eradicate the memories of old?

For so many years, Holland have been the nearly men of international football. In the 1970’s, they were the creators of Total Football and had the maestro, Johan Cruyff as the master of that system. The 1980’s saw other great players emerge. Rijkaard, Gullit, Van Basten. All superb footballers who had an hand in Holland’s only tournament victory, Euro 1988.

The 1990’s saw Dutch club football reach its heights, with the Ajax youth system reaping dividends. Bergkamp, the De Boer brothers, Kluivert, Davids, Overmars. I could go on. But they didn’t win anything internationally either.

The point is Holland produces some of the best footballers of their respective generations. But they’ve never won the big one. The question is why?

This decade has seen the Dutch decline set in, after failing to make the World Cup in 2002 (under arguably their most successful manager Louis Van Gaal). They were arguably the most fluid side at Euro 2008, dismantling World champs and runner-ups Italy and France. These goals show the pure tactical class of the Dutch passing system and also their ability to counter attack like no other side.

But once again, Holland fell short after they were undone by their former manager and national team specialist, Guus Hiddink.

This time round, Holland possess arguably the most dynamic frontline out the European teams. Wesley Sneijder has had a sensational season at newly crowned Champions League winners Inter Milan, and was in my opinion, the best footballer in Europe this year. He was the creative engine behind that side and similarly here, he will look to link up with Robin Van Persie. Van Persie, by his own admission has had a injury-plagued season, but there’s no denying what he brings to the side: a accomplished striker. If he reaches peak fitness in time, then he can be deadly.

The wings in the adapted 4-2-3-1 formation will often blaze forward in an aid to help Van Persie. Arjen Robben, like Wesley Sneijder, has excelled after leaving Real Madrid, scoring some outrageous solo efforts. His form could well be key to Dutch success in South Africa but if reports are to be believed, he’s suffered a hamstring tear. On the right should be Rafael Van Der Vaart, who chose to stay in Madrid. He offers may options as well, and could also cut inside with devastating effect.

Oranje is the colour for these passionate fans

Bert van Marwijk has balanced his side well. The glamour up front is well supported by bruising determinism and experience behind. Mark Van Bommel and Nigel De Jong will likely be the holding midfielders, each bringing different aspects. De Jong has proved at Manchester City that he’s a superb no-nonsense tackler, which City really needed. Van Bommel is an enforcer but also a great passer as well. Tackling isn’t exactly his strongest attribute and he has  a short fuse.

The subs bench also looks good as well. Ibrahim Affelay has been a revelation for PSV, and will be a useful impact sub when called upon. Dirk Kuyt’s work ethic is often underrated and he would also easily slot into Van Marwijk’s system.

Holland’s defence however worries me. Some players are way past their prime, particularly captain Giovanni Van Bronckhorst, a superb servant over the years, but I doubt he could cope with particularly fast wingers at left back. Andre Ooijer also falls into this category, and both him and Gio are 35. They both provide vital experience and composure to the defence, but speed is lacking at the back. This could see Johnny Heitinga partnering Joris Mathijsen in the heart of defence.

If the Netherlands had a world-class centre back, like so many other nations, then they would be classed as one of the favourites. Brazil have Lucio, England have John Terry (on his day can superb, just not this season) and Spain have Gerard Pique. All 3 are great centre-backs, although I’ll gladly except one has been haphazard at times this year.

Holland need a defensive rock similar to Jaap Stam, a player who would cast fear into opponents. They don’t have that.

The goalkeeper situation is worse however. Since Edwin Van Der Sar retired from international football, Holland have struggled to find a replacement. Maaten Stekelenburg lacks the leadership qualities of predecessor and he often looks shaky at times. This could prove to be disasterous, but he’s the best option viable to Van Marwijk.

If Holland’s defence perform as well as they did in a easy qualifying group, then there won’t be a problem. Unfortunately, for them as they well know, this stage is much tougher. Injuries will be a factor as well, the side is ridden with players prone to injuries.

So, is the future bright for Holland? Certainly, but they’ll need a lot more luck on and off the field, if they are to make the final in Johannesburg on July 11th.