Netherlands boss Louis van Gaal has long extolled the virtues of his attacking triumvirate of Kevin Strootman, Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben. Yet while Robben and the injury prone van Persie are set for the World Cup in Brazil, Strootman has been ruled out and so reduces van Gaal’s favorite trio down to two.
Once a dead certainty to join Manchester United, Strootman instead quit Eredivisie club PSV in 2013 to join Serie A side, Roma. Having proven a hit in the Italian capital, the uncompromising Dutchman sustained a knee injury last month, which prematurely ended his season and dashed any hopes of making the plane to Brazil.
While Strootman’s misfortune will open the door for another like-minded player, van Gaal will be looking to call time on his time as Netherlands boss – he is linked with Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur- by going out with a bang. That also means it will be down to Manchester United’s van Persie and Bayern Munich’s Robben as the two men to lead the side in the absence of the recognized Robben-van Persie-Strootman triumvirate. Spain, Chile and Australia provide the Netherlands’ opposition in the group stages and while Chile could prove a surprise package and benefit from the fact the tournament is in Latin America, the Dutch will be expected to qualify with Spain.
Van Gaal will find it hard to pick a more in-form player than Robben. Having just won the Bundesliga in record time, Munich are in the last four of the Champions League and aiming to become the first club in history to win it back-to-back in the current format. The only thing that will stop Robben is fatigue – the fact Munich have gone so far in the key competitions has meant little rest for the ex-Chelsea and Real Madrid man.
Van Persie on the other hand is having a second long spell on the sidelines in a short space of time. Having been injured earlier in the season for United, he is now nursing a knee injury that has ruled him out for the rest of the campaign. Although he is expected to regain fitness in time for the Netherlands squad selection, van Persie must get back to match fitness before he is even considered for a striking role. There is almost no doubt van Persie will feature if fit, but aged 30 and with his in injury record, this is undoubtedly his last World Cup and he knows it.
Despite the Netherlands’ association with flair, “total football” and the players it has continued to produce, the nation has a disappointing World Cup record. A beaten finalist on three occasions, the “Oranje” the burden of expectation will weigh less than on previous outings. In the past, some of the best Netherlands sides have suffered from in-fighting and so over the years the country has not achieved what it should. Furthermore, the famous youth set-up at Ajax Amsterdam that has provided a solid backbone to the national side over the years is conspicuous by its absence. Now the Ajax system suffers by virtue of the fact bigger and wealthier European clubs are signing up kids before they can join feeder clubs. As a result, both Ajax and the Netherlands have suffered. This is not a great Dutch side by the country’s high standards, yet van Gaal does have two match-winners in van Persie and Robben, even if the triumvirate is a man down.
World Cup Preview is an ongoing column of commentary, news and analysis of the teams and players participating in this year’s World Cup in Brazil
Commentary by Robert Shepherd