The second of today’s Group C matches sees African qualifiers Ivory Coast meet former European Champions and two-times World Cup runners-up Holland in the 52,000 capacity Gottleib-Daimler Stadion in Stuttgart. It will be the first ever meeting between the two nations in any sphere.
Most of the issues surrounding the so-called ‘group of death’ could be concluded by the early evening. Wins for Argentina over Serbia & Montenegro in the early afternoon match and Holland later on would result in the qualification of the two favourites with a game to spare. All that would be left would be the decisive match next week to decided who tops the group.
However, just as Serbia & Montenegro will be looking to keep their hopes alive in Gelsenkirchen, Ivory Coast will be looking to cause an upset of their own against the Dutch. It is a potentially mouth-watering match-up. Ivory Coast were comfortably beaten by Argentina on Saturday night in the end, but showed enough flashes of pace, power and technique to suggest that if they can overcome the obvious nerves shown in the opening match they might be capable of causing an upset. Holland were fairly impressive in their own opening match – a 1-0 win over Serbia & Montenegro on Sunday – but pundits and fans are debating the merits of the result. Were Holland really very good, or did their win owe more to the overly-cautious approach of their opponents?
One certainty surrounding today’s game is that Ivory Coast will approach it far differently to the team from the Balkans. It is true that their defeat by Argentina means that they need to press for a positive result, but anyone who has examined the performances of ‘Elephants’ in the last eighteen months will know that they are an attacking and fearless team regardless of the opposition or the circumstances.
The Ivorians, who will be playing against European opposition for only the eighth time in their history this afternoon, are the only squad at the finals who are entirely based overseas. The need for points and the ability shown in the qualifiers, the 2006 African Cup of Nations and their opening defeat means that they will be hopeful of achieving at least a draw, the minimum requirement today.
Ivory Coast’s French coach Henri Michel, who led his native country to the 1984 Olympic title and also during the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, is expected to make just one change from last weekend’s team. Bonaventure Kalou’s position up front is reported to be in jeopardy and Michel is likely to give a start to Aruna Dindane of Lens. Dindane will offer some much-needed support to captain Didier Drogba, who looked isolated at times in the game against Argentina.
Michel is acutely aware of the threat posed by the Dutch this afternoon, despite the Orangemen not looking at their most fluid against a negative Serbia & Montenegro last Sunday. He singled out unsettled Manchester United striker Ruud van Nistelrooy as a key threat to his side’s chances of progression.
“We know van Nistelrooy’s qualities, everybody who knows about football does,” he said on Thursday.
“He can always score if the ball comes near to his feet, so we just have to make sure he doesn’t get too much of the ball. He is still their best player and is the one I fear most.”
Robben the threat
Reserve forward Arouna Kone has spent the last three seasons in Dutch football, and the 22 year-old is better placed than most to pass judgement on Holland’s players. It is Chelsea’s Arjen Robben, Holland’s match-winner last weekend, who the PSV man fears the most.
“Robben is probably the most important player in their team,” he argued.
“In their first match he was involved in all of their attacks. There’s no doubt that he is a great player and if we can stop him we can stop their team. The football culture is very rich in the Netherlands. There are a lot of good technical players and they always try to play beautiful football. We have our own strengths too though.”
The question of whether to include Hamburg’s Rafael van der Vaart, who has recovered from the ankle injury which kept him out of the opening match, is the only selection problem for Holland coach Marco van Basten. If van der Vaart is given the green light to return to the starting line-up it will most probably be at the expense of his former Ajax colleague Wesley Sneijder. The more likely scenario is that van Basten will name an unchanged team and van der Vaart will be limited to a place on the substitutes bench.
Van Basten, one of the most talented and prolific forwards in the history of the game, has been forced to answer many questions this week regarding Ivory Coast forward Didier Drogba – seen by many as the biggest threat to Holland this afternoon. The former Milan striker, in his first job in management, seems fairly relaxed about the threat posed by Drogba. Despite an obvious respect for the Chelsea star, van Basten insists that his team must not worry unduly about any single player.
“We have no special anti-Drogba plan,” he reasoned on Wednesday.
“We know he is very good at creating chances through his strength and that he scores lots of goals but we must look after him as a team. Even though he has a lot of qualities we cannot change everything for just one player.”
Van Basten has paid close attention to the Ivorians since the draw for the World Cup Finals was made last December, and admits that he is a little unsure of what to expect this afternoon in terms of personnel and tactics.
“During the African Nations Cup earlier in the year they changed their system and their players quite a lot, so it is difficult to know how they will approach our game,” he said.
“What they definitely have are players who are used to playing in big leagues in England and Spain. They are strong individually and collectively and we know it will be a very tough game for us.”
Despite results being more important than performances in the opening round of matches, many Dutch fans and pundits have expressed their dissatisfaction at Holland’s performance against Serbia & Montenegro last weekend. The Orangemen showed flashes of their patented ‘Total Football’, but a lack of consistent fluidity and further goals has led to expressions of displeasure from the media, fans and even the players.
Versatile defender John Heitinga of Ajax, who started the first game at right-back, gave an insight into the Dutch camp’s quest for perfection as he faced the press on Tuesday.
“Our confidence is high, our spirit is good and I’d say we are all quite pleased with Sunday’s result,” he said.
“But it’s correct to say that everyone feels we can play a lot better and we need to be more ruthless with the chances we create. The manager has a vision of how he thinks we should play and we still haven’t achieved that yet.”
“Before the Serbia game, we were all feeling under a lot of pressure. It is such a tough group that one bad result could have left us in big trouble. We are more relaxed now, but we know that Ivory Coast need points and will be fired up against us.”
By Mark Robinson
Holland: Van der Sar; Heitinga, Ooijer, Mathijsen, Van Bronkhorst; Van Bommel, Sneijder, Cocu; Van Persie, Van Nistelrooy, Robben
Ivory Coast: Tizie; Eboue, K Toure, Boka, Meite; Akale, Zokora, Y Toure, Keita; Dindane, Drogba
Referee: Referee: Oscar Ruiz (Colombia)