By Mark Robinson
Porto’s Dragao Stadium, scene of the tournament’s opening game on Saturday, is the venue for the second of today’s Group D matches.
Both former winners of the competition (Holland in 1988, Germany in 1972, 1980 and 1996), Holland and Germany are two of the heavyweights of European football, with local rivalry making the game one of the tournament’s most eagerly awaited encounters.
Historic and geographical rivals, there will be no quarter given as the two sides square up in an attempt to make themselves favourites for qualification from the finals’ ‘Group of Death’.
Clashes between the two have traditionally been bad tempered and often highly significanct. The Dutch have never forgiven the Germans for defeating their formidable side in the 1974 World Cup final, while German fans will point to the ugly clash between Frank Rijkaard and the current German coach Rudi Voller at Italia 90.
The Dutch enter this evening’s game as favourites, with the Germans arguably even more unfaniced than at the last World Cup, where they defied the odds and expert opinion in a run all the way to the final.
Holland, conspicuous by their absence in Korea and Japan, will look to answer the usual question – will a lack of unity and internal bickering once again smother and suffocate their undoubted talent ?
The man entrusted with keeping the squad united and focussed is the former Rangers and PSV manager Dick Advocaat. Appointed for a second term in February 2002, Advocaat’s team struggled in qualification where they played second fiddle to Group D rivals the Czech Republic.
In the play-offs, their Jekyll and Hyde nature was evident again, as they humiliatingly lost the first leg 1-0 to Scotland before hammering them 6-0 in the return leg in Amsterdam. Advocaat, who previously led Holland to the quarter finals of the World Cup in 1994, will be hoping his experience can ensure the right Dutch team turns up at the finals.
A passionate manager, Advocaat is admired in Holland for that quality but has been criticised for a reluctance to revolutionise the squad. While a number of talented youngsters have made the final 23 man squad for Portugal, the Dutch press have been quick to question the presence of so many of the old guard, notably Frank de Boer, Michael Reiziger, Philip Cocu, Marc Overmars, Pierre Van Hooijdonk and even Patrick Kluivert.
How many of these players make the starting line up is one question that Advocaat will no longer be able to hide from this evening. He will announce his starting line up only one hour before kick off, but is widely tipped to begin with a 4-3-3 formation.
The Dutch coach has been quick to play down both the explosiveness and the significance of tonight’s match.
“One match is not decisive, it is about the total result of the three games,” the coach told the media last night.
“The Czech and Latvia games are just as important as this one.”
The main injury doubt for the Dutch surrounds midfielder Clarence Seedorf, who is recovering from a hamstring injury.
“He trained separately today,” said the coach of the three times Champions League winner.
“We will decide on his availability tomorrow. I am not going to say whether he will play or not. When fit he is only one of 23 players.”
In spite of the rumblings in the Dutch press, Advocaat remains happy at how the preparations have gone thus far and insists his squad just want to get on with playing.
The Dutch and Germans will be the last teams to kick off their campaigns when the match begins this evening.
“The players are glad to be playing at last,” he said. “After weeks of training the game has come at the right time for everyone.”
The main bone of contention has been up front, where Manchester United’s Ruud Van Nistelrooy expected to get the nod as the central striker, thus ending Patrick Kluivert’s eight year reign as the focal point of the Dutch attack.
Van Nistelrooy’s form for United since his move from PSV three years ago has been sensational, while Kluivert has become more and more of a bit part player at the Nou Camp. Both have stated rather publicly that they seem unable to play together.
For this reason Advocaat is likely to line up with a 4-3-3, with Ajax skipper Rafael Van Der Vaart and Inter’s Andy Van Der Meyde flanking Van Nistelrooy.
Van der Vaart, occupies a much more central role for the Dutch champions, but seems unfazed by the tactical transition.
“It is a position I have not played much before, but as long as I have the freedom to go into the middle now and then, it’s ok for me,” declared the 21 year old, widely tipped to make a huge impact on the finals.
Philip Cocu should occupy the holding midfield role, with youngster Wesley Snjeider (so impressive against Scotland in Amsterdam) and the instantly recognisable Edgar Davids either side. Davids, sent home in disgrace from Euro 96, has had a phenomenal second half of the season, when his form helped rejuvenate Barcelona and fire them into the runners up spot in La Liga.
Fulham’s Edwin Van Der Sar is Holland’s most capped goalkeeper and will retain the jersey for the duration of the tournament.
It is in front of him where most speculation has been rife, with Advocaat keeping everyone guessing as to his back four. Of all the options, Milan’s Jaap Stam is arguably the only one assured of a starting place. Giovanni Van Bronckhorst, Frank de Boer, John Heitinga, Michael Reiziger and Wilifed Bouma will contest the other starting berths.
There is arguably less pressure in the German camp, something that would have been unheard of five years ago. Perennial tournament frontrunners, Rudi Voller’s squad seem to have lost the faith of the German public and its media, some of whom aren’t even expecting qualification from the group stage. Recent defeats to Romania and Hungary in the run up to the finals have done little to induce confidence from the public. The players, however, see things rather differently.
“There is a huge difference between friendlies and competitive matches,” argues goalkeeper Oliver Kahn. “The results during the preparation period should not be overstated.”
Defender Jens Novotny, much criticised after the recent defeats, agrees.
“A completely different team will take the pitch for the match against the Netherlands,” he said to the press on Sunday. “We will be aggressive from the word go and will be fully concentrated. We won’t make the same mistakes we made against Hungary.”
Despite public protests, Voller has not bowed to his critics who wanted a predominantly youthful starting line-up. Many of the old faces return, albeit with a blend of youth as well as Voeller attempts to defy the odds once more as he did two years ago in Japan.
Despite a lack of flair and real young talent, on pedigree alone the Germans will be expected by some observers to progress well into the latter stages.
Much will depend on the form of Germany’s two brightest stars, arguably the only truly world class players they have. Kahn and midfield playmaker Michael Ballack, both of Bayern Munich, were outstanding in the 2002 World Cup and their form will once again be the key to German hopes.
However, unlike the run up to Japan and Korea when both had been in top form, both are entering the tournament with something of a point to prove. Ballack has failed to impress at Bayern, where he moved after the World Cup, and Kahn’s form and private life have been the source of much dispute within the German press. Many observers have been calling for him to be replaced by Arsenal’s Jens Lehmann, and both he and Ballack have been widely linked with an exit from Bayern. Voller, however, will keep the faith.
Two young full backs, Stuttgart’s Phillip Lahm and Andreas Hinkel are expected to start the tournament, and such is their talent that dislodging them could take years if they continue to progress. Both have been impressive in the Bundesliga and the Champions League this season. If Hinkel fails to recover from an ankle injury then his place will probably be occupied by Arne Friedrich.
The much criticised duo of Novotny and Christian Worns will definitely start, despite the rumblings in the press. Both are vastly experienced but vulnerable to searing pace, which they are unlikely to face this evening with ‘box player’ Van Nistelrooy lining up as the central striker for Holland.
The midfield remains a problem area, especially if deprived of Ballack, who may play as a support striker this evening. Liverpool’s Dietmar Hamann had an excellent World Cup, but has struggled for his usual consistency at Anfield this season. With Torsten Frings and Bernd Schneider due to occupy the other spots, the feeling is that Germany will be functional rather than spectacular in midfield, Ballack aside.
One bright star for the future is 19-year-old rookie Bastian Sweinsteiger, called up by Voller after only a handful of appearances for the Under-21s and his club Bayern Munich. Lothar Matthaus in particular has been fulsome in his praise of the youngster. He may have a part to play as a substitute.
Stuttgart’s Kevin Kuranyi should certainly start, and may be partnered by a deep lying Ballack or Werder Bremen’s Miroslav Klose who scored five goals at the 2002 World Cup. Klose’s form since then has been patchy, while despite his Champions League exploits Kuranyi is yet to be tested under the fiercest pressure at the highest level.
Kahn remains confident ahead of the game tonight and the tournament itself, claiming the preparations remind him of the successful World Cup campaign two years ago.
“I have exactly the same feeling as two years ago,” he claims. “If we perform as a unit, and every player gives it his very best, everything can happen.
“All 23 players are fit and able to play against The Netherlands,” assistant coach Michael Skibbe told the press.
“We are all motivated and cannot wait for our first game of Euro 2004. We have a game plan for tonight which we will stick to and we are very optimistic we can get the right result.”
Holland (possible): Van Der Sar; Reiziger, Stam, Heitinga, Van Bronkhost; Snjeider, Cocu, Davids; Van Der Meyde, Van Nistelrooy, Van der Vaart
Germany (possible): Kahn; Hinkel, Novotny, Worns, Lahm; Schneider, Frings, Hamann, Baumann; Ballack; Kuranyi
Referee: A Frisk (Swe)