Wesley Sneijder back on Dutch team
AMSTERDAM -- Playmaker Wesley Sneijder returned to the Netherlands squad Friday after a six-month absence for the World Cup qualifiers against Estonia and Romania.
Sneijder spent months on the sidelines late last year through injury and a dispute with former club Inter Milan. He moved to Galatasary in the January transfer window and has returned to form, if not 100-percent match fitness, with the Turkish club that this week beat Schalke to reach the Champions League quarterfinals.
Hampered by injury and lack of playing time, Sneijder has not played for his country since September.
Schalke sorely missed injured striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar in its loss to Galatasaray, and Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal will also have to make do without him.
Huntelaar's perennial rival for the striker's shirt, Robin van Persie, is fit, though the prolific Manchester United star is going through a lean patch by his lofty scoring standards.
Van Persie has 23 goals in all competitions since moving from Arsenal to Old Trafford this season, but has not scored for United since Feb. 10. Van Persie has 31 goals in 72 matches for his country, and Van Gaal will be hoping he recovers his scoring touch in the World Cup qualifiers.
Van Gaal called up PSV Eindhoven forward Jeremain Lens, who scored in a 1-1 friendly draw with Italy last month, to replace the injured Huntelaar.
"I played him in that position against Italy because I think he is the number two or three -- he has to fight that out with Huntelaar -- for the striker's position," Van Gaal said.
The Netherlands was World Cup runner-up in 2010 but crashed out of last year's European Championship after losing all three group matches. Then-coach Bert van Marwijk quit after Euro 2012 and was replaced by Van Gaal, who is in his second stint as national coach.
Van Gaal has rejuvenated the team, rebuilding the defense and experimenting with young midfielders in Sneijder's absence while sticking with Van Persie or Huntelaar up front.
So far, it has paid off. The Netherlands has won all four qualifiers to top Group D. The team plays Estonia next Friday and Romania on March 26. Both matches are at Amsterdam Arena.
The Netherlands opened its campaign for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil with a 4-1 victory over Romania in Bucharest, with Lens, Van der Vaart, Van Persie and defender Bruno Martins Indi scoring. The resounding defeat is Romania's only loss so far in the qualifiers and it hasn't conceded a goal since, keeping clean sheets in wins over Turkey, Andorra and Estonia.
Van Gaal's team has yet to face Estonia, which has one win and three defeats so far in qualifying.
The complete call-up includes:
Goalkeepers: Maarten Stekelenburg (AS Roma), Kenneth Vermeer (Ajax), Michel Vorm (Swansea).
Midfielders: Jordy Clasie (Feyenoord), Kevin Strootman (PSV Eindhoven), Jonathan De Guzman (Swansea), Siem de Jong (Ajax), Tonny Trindade de Vilhena (Feyenoord), Rafael van der Vaart (Hamburg), Wesley Sneijder (Galatasaray).
Forwards: Ruben Schaken (Feyenoord), Dirk Kuijt (Fenerbahce), Robin van Persie (Manchester United), Arjen Robben (Bayern Munchen), Ola John (Benfica), Jeremain Lens (PSV Eindhoven).