Group E: Holland

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They have almost too much attacking talent to choose from – but, asks Ben Lyttleton, will Holland be undone by defensive worries again?

Holland may not have had the toughest World Cup qualifying group but no team made it to South Africa in more impressive circumstances: eight wins from eight (against Norway, Scotland, Macedonia and Iceland) with 17 goals scored and only two conceded. Little wonder the Dutch FA recently signed a new deal with coach Bert van Marwijik taking him through to Euro 2012.

Van Marwijik took over a Holland side that had showed all its frailties at Euro 2008: although brilliant in their group wins against Italy (3-0) and France (4-1), the team capitulated in the quarter-finals to a Russia side coached by Guus Hiddink. They were without winger Arjen Robben for that match and missed him greatly.

Van Marwijk hasn't had to make many changes to Marco van Basten’s squad, simply replacing the retired Edwin van der Sar with Martin Stekelenburg and reinstating Mark van Bommel – not so much because the experienced midfielder is his son-in-law as because Van Bommel had fallen out with Van Basten.

Significantly for this squad, there are no divisions and everyone seems to love and respect one another. “The vibe is very good at the moment, really good,” said Robben. “We were a team in 2008 and we know each other well now. It’s hard to explain, but compared to a few years ago, we’re close to being a club team.”

The team ethic is something that the understated Van Marwijk has been pushing ever since he took over. “We might not have the world-class players at all spots, but like my Feyenoord side in 2002" – the one that won the UEFA Cup beating Inter Milan, Borussia Dortmund, Rangers and PSV – "we might have the better team.”

Holland’s real strength is in their attacking quartet, with Wesley Sneijder set to start behind a front three of Robben, Robin van Persie and Dirk Kuyt – if, that is, they're all fit. Van Persie hasn't played since injuring ankle ligaments on international duty back in November. It could be a blessing if he reaches the World Cup in peak fitness.

Van Marwijk also has options: Rafael van der Vaart could replace or accompany Sneijder, one of Serie A’s players of the season. Eljero Alia and Ryan Babel offer pacey alternatives out wide, while Klaas-Jan Huntelaar is a more orthodox centre-forward option.

“In this team, the players who can make the difference on their own are all forwards,” says Andre Ooijer, one of few squad members the wrong side of 30. “We have enormous talent up front, but our real outstanding quality is that everyone has the same attitude, which is that first of all we mustn’t concede goals. We play as a unit, very compact, and we’ll stick with that philosophy in South Africa.”

The biggest question-marks are in defence, where goalkeeper Stekelenburg lacks the ball-playing and leadership skills of Van der Sar, injury-wracked centre-half Ooijer almost missed out, and Giovanni van Bronckhorst is still first-choice left-back in the absence of any decent competition. On the other side, Ajax youngster Gregory van der Wiel is secure at right-back.

Van Bommel’s partner in holding midfield is Nigel de Jong, who was recently warned by Van Marwijk to tone down his tackling after breaking the leg of USA midfielder Stuart Holden in a 2-1 friendly win back in March. “He got away with a yellow card in that game but it could easily be red at the World Cup, and that would leave us in trouble,” he said. “He needs to watch himself.”

Interesting fact
It’s official: Arjen Robben’s reputation as The Man with Glass Ankles is unfair. The winger has played more than 30 games in each of the last two seasons. “Specialists compared me to a Formula 1 race car,” he said, “whenever one little screw is loose, the engine can be blown. But my muscle problems are behind me now.” We'll see.

The Coach: Bert van Marwijk
There was a six-year gap, and a spell at Borussia Dortmund, between the only two trophies Bert van Marwijk has won, the 2002 UEFA Cup and 2008 Dutch Cup, both with Feyenoord. The coach has quietly impressed with his no-nonsense style and has high hopes this summer. “We are not going to this tournament to be a part of it, but we’re going there so we can win it,” he said.

Key Player: Robin van Persie
The Arsenal striker gave notice of his talent with a stunning World Cup goal against Ivory Coast four years ago and will be desperate to lead the line for Holland after another season on the Ashburton sidelines.

Probable Team (4-2-1-3) Stekelenburg; Van der Wiel, Ooijer, Mathijsen, Van Bronckhorst; Van Bommel, De Jong; Sneijder; Kuyt, Van Persie, Robben

World Cup Talentspotter: More details on the players
Q&A: FFT interviews a player from every nation 

Denmark, June 14, 12.30pm, Johannesburg
Japan, June 19, 12.30pm, Durban
Cameroon, June 24, 7.30pm, Cape Town

Qualified Top of UEFA Group 9
FYR Macedonia (A) 2-1
Iceland (H) 2-0
Norway (A) 1-0
Scotland (H) 3-0
FYR Macedonia (H) 4-0
Iceland (A) 2-1
Norway (H) 2-0
Scotland (A) 1-0

World Cup record
1934 1st Round
1938 1st Round   
1974 Runners-up
1978 Runners-up
1990 2nd Round
1994 Quarter-final
1998 Semi-final
2006 2nd Round

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