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Van Basten's bright new dawn?

After missing out on qualification for the 2002 World Cup in Japan/ South Korea the Netherlands return to football's biggest stage after an eight-year absence.

For a sports mad country, and particularly one boasting such a rich footballing heritage, missing out on the 2002 tournament was a significant blow, and despite reaching the semi-finals at Euro 2004 the feeling within the KNVB was that it was time for a change.

Firstly, and most surprising, came the appointment as national coach of the hugely inexperienced Marco van Basten as a replacement for the vastly experienced Dick Advocaat.

As a striker in the late 1980s and early 1990s Van Basten was without equal, but with only a brief stint as assistant coach of the Ajax reserve team by way of managerial qualifications he hardly seemed the right man for the job - a point latched onto by sceptical fans and media alike.

Secondly, and to some no less surprising, but certainly just as risky, was Van Basten's decision to axe many of the Netherlands' most experienced stars; players such as Clarence Seedorf and Patrick Kluivert were removed in favour of widespread though not wholesale rejuvenation.

The rationale behind the decision was that some of the squad's elder players had failed to produce performances befitting their considerable hype, plus the removal of swollen egos from the national set-up provided a clean break with the disappointments of the recent past and helped guard against one of the Dutch national side's traditional problems; implosion from within as a result of personality clashes.

That is not to say that experience does not have its place in the Van Basten era - players like Mark van Bommel and Philip Cocu do still have a part to play, but the difference is that they are now part of a squad rather than core elements of it.

Van Basten's decision to increasingly rely on a talented crop of younger players has generated considerable excitement around the Dutch side.

Players like Feyenoord's Dirk Kuyt, Hamburg's Rafael van der Vaart, Chelsea's Arjen Robben and Arsenal's Robin van Persie typify the verve, guile, speed and youth that flows through the Dutch ranks and which promises so much in Germany.

With four players of their quality it is difficult to isolate one as the star player; the Netherlands boast class front to back and across all ages - from Ruud van Nistelrooy in attack to Edwin van dear Saar in goal - but it is the youth of the squad that promises to provide the most excitement in Germany.

The 2006 edition of the World Cup will be the Netherlands' 8th appearance at the finals, with their storied performances in the 1974 and 1978 tournaments fondly remembered by those old enough to and held in highest esteem by those who only learnt the legend of Johann Cruyff and Total Football second-hand.

In reaching but losing in the final of both 1974 and 1978 finals the Dutch attained the unenviable distinction of become the only country to finish as runners-up in consecutive World Cup finals. On both occasions the Dutch lost to the host nations, 2-1 to West Germany in 1974 and 3-1 to Argentina four years later.

The Netherlands qualified for Germany in some style: They topped their group with an impressive 10 victories and zero defeats from a total of 12 games which featured 27 goals scored and a paltry three conceded.

The Netherlands chief rivals in their qualifying group were the technical Romanians and the gifted Czech Republic; a team who had inflicted a 3-2 defeat on the Dutch during the group stage of Euro 2004 in what many felt was the game of the tournament.

Van Basten will be acutely aware that Serbia & Montenegro and the Ivory Coast will both provide stern tests.
However, the Dutch stamped their authority on the group with a 2-0 win over the Czechs in Amsterdam in the opening game and then consolidated their position atop the group with further 2-0 victories over Romania both home and away, and against the Czechs in the return leg in Prague to seal qualification. A 4-0 away win over Finland added further gloss to an impressive qualifying display.

Those performances will surely give Van Basten's team confidence as they make their reappearance on the World Cup stage; and confidence they will need as they face what is for some observers a classic 'Group of Death'.

No team would relish switching Group C berths with the Netherlands who face Serbia & Montenegro, the Ivory Coast and Argentina - the only group to rival this is Group E where Italy, the Czech Republic, Ghana and the USA will clash.

Doubtless the Dutch fans will expect to reach the second round and will view their final group game against Argentina on June 21st in Frankfurt as the match that will decide which of the two will top the group.

However, Van Basten will be acutely aware that Serbia & Montenegro and the Ivory Coast will both provide stern tests and the latter particularly represent a potential banana peel.

In qualifying Serbia &Montenegro conceded just one goal and lost no games, while the Ivory Coast, whose talisman is the Chelsea striker Didier Drogba, were only denied glory in the 2006 African Cup Nation when they lost the final to hosts Egypt on penalties.

That Germany are hosting the World Cup is something of a good omen for Van Basten and the Netherlands, who can point to considerable success when their west European neighbours have previously hosted international tournaments.

In 1988 the Dutch beat West Germany in the semi-finals of the European Championships before winning the competition by beating the Soviet Union in Munich's Olympiastadion, the venue in which they were beaten World Cup finalists 14 years earlier.

Can history repeat itself for the Oranje when they return to Germany this summer?