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Jun 6, 2014

32 Teams in 32 Days: Netherlands

After finishing as the runner-up on three occasions, the Oranje hope to hit their stride in Brazil and lift their second major trophy.

Group B | Spain | Chile | Australia

Team DNA

Attack, attack, attack -- that is the Louis van Gaal way. Like many in Netherlands, he was dismayed by the national team's reductive showing in 2010, with the double pivot composed of Nigel de Jong and Mark van Bommel in a 4-2-3-1 formation that was an abomination to traditionalists.

- 32 Teams in 32 Days: Country-by-country previews

- #WorldCupRank: No. 13 ... Robin van Persie

- Kuper: Van Persie's last shot at the world

- World Cup blog: Netherlands

Soon after taking over as manager, van Gaal reintroduced the classic Ajax/Netherlands 4-3-3 lineup, and he has exhausted a series of young players since beginning his second spell, including the Feyenoord quartet of Bruno Martins Indi, Stefan de Vrij, Jordy Clasie and Daryl Janmaat.

In a recent friendly against Ecuador, van Gaal commuted to 5-3-2, but the philosophy remains the same. Using the full breadth of the pitch is important, and Netherlands will aim to play the game in their opponent's half. They have looked haphazard at the back on occasion but are set up to excite and score goals.

Starting scenario

History

This will be Netherlands' 10th World Cup appearance, and they have failed to advance past the first round only twice. They have been runner-up in the tournament three times, most recently four years ago in South Africa.

How they reached Brazil

Netherland qualified as they always do, with great style and comfort. They won all their matches apart from an away trip to Estonia, where Robin van Persie's stoppage-time penalty was needed to secure a draw in Tallinn. Highlights included beating Turkey twice and impressive home victories over Romania (4-0) and playoff contenders Hungary (8-1). Considering van Gaal's renewal of the team, it was a very authoritative campaign.

Van Persie was the main threat, topping the group's scoring charts with 11 of a team total 34 goals. After a demoralising 2012 Euros, van Gaal regenerated the squad and encountered none of the dramas from his first spell in charge (Netherlands failed to qualify for the 2002 World Cup under his leadership).

The numbers never lie

Calculating a nation's passion for the game based on how well it pays its manager, attends its games and gets out to play:

Key battles

It's always Germany. The rivalry has history, and the two countries have been involved in some titanic struggles over the years. Losing the 1974 World Cup final to West Germany still sticks in many craws despite a Netherlands win between the two squads in the semifinals of the 1988 Euros.

There was also the more recent humbling by Germany at the 2012 Euros, which summed up a miserable tournament (Netherlands didn't register a point in group play) and led to manager Bert van Marwijk's resignation. An extra thread emerged in the struggle between the two there, with Germany edging ahead in terms of player production. Van Gaal's tenure has, so far, been a response to that concern, and it will be interesting to see his youthful side take on the prolific, modern group of players in Group B.

Van Persie is no stranger to the big stage, but his attacking brilliance must be on full display in order to lift a relatively inexperienced Netherlands side.

Most important player

It would help Netherlands' cause enormously if van Persie (who has been appointed captain) and Arjen Robben hit a scoring streak, but van Gaal believes in an ultra-democracy and will not be highlighting individuals. But his tactics tweak, by using wing-backs, does make Janmaat a key figure in the setup.

The 24-year-old has enormous offensive potential raiding down the right, as he has consistently shown for Feyenoord since arriving in 2012. Limiting his defensive responsibilities could give the Dutch an extra option going forward.

With the reshuffle in defence, Janmaat's club colleague Martins Indi is also important. In many ways, the left-footer is ideal for a back three as a versatile figure equally adept at centre-back or left-back. His organisation of the central three (and his athleticism) will govern how much freedom the wing-backs get.

Definition of success

For a nation that reached the final four years ago, getting out of probably the toughest World Cup group would be a reason to cheer on its own. Spain and Chile are formidable, talented and versatile opponents, and both have considerably more experience than van Gaal's relatively green squad.

Australia may not have the same cachet as the others in the pool, but they have the capacity to make things difficult for Netherlands. On the other hand, a number of players in van Gaal's group have tournament experience together from the Euro Under-21 in Israel last summer.

How far will Netherlands go?

Group B is tough. Netherlands' lack of experience could hurt them, as Spain and Chile are strong contenders for the knockout phase. If Netherlands can escape group play, they won't go past the round of 16.

ESPN FC Analysts' take: Michael Ballack

The Dutch have always been famous for their attractive, high-scoring football. When they have a good game, it looks fluid. The ball is spread around the pitch really well, and that leads to a lot of chances. It's good to watch, and that's exactly what I like.

When Netherlands go down 1-0 in a game, what happens? In the past, there were players like Mark van Bommel, extremely tough players who could lead the team. There's a good chance the Dutch lose to Spain in the first game. They can't collapse as they did in the 2012 Euros. I am not sure who their leader is anymore, and that may be the only weak spot on the team. Because from a quality point, I'm not worried.

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