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Aug 23, 2011

The changing of the guard

Should reports in the blogosphere be believed, Netherlands will climb to the top of the new FIFA World Ranking when it is released on Wednesday. This changing of the guard comes as current leaders Spain have lost three friendlies since they were crowned world champions last summer, while the Dutch have been undefeated since. Obviously, it is just statistics, but it is an indication of the progress the team has made since the appointment of coach Bert van Marwijk after Euro 2008.

As Wesley Sneijder said prior to the cancelled friendly against England earlier this month: "If we have an away trip to a smaller nation these days, then we go there to enjoy and with the expectancy to win. There is no question about it. We used to travel to countries like Macedonia or Albania in fear. Not anymore. Our confidence has grown so much."

Robin van Persie proved the eagerness of the players to be in the squad. He had suffered a knock during an Arsenal friendly in July, but never thought of withdrawing. Theo Janssen did decide to call in sick for the South American trip in June with a minor injury and was duly left out of the squad for Wembley. Van Marwijk has options and alternatives in many positions. If one player is not available, another gets his chance and usually takes it. Everyone wants to be part of the winning team.

In his three years in the job, Van Marwijk has managed to find a tactical system that can easily accommodate his players and bring out the best in them. Just look at Erik Pieters of PSV. He rarely impresses at his club and even lost his place for a while at the start of this season, but there is no debating that he is the permanent successor to the retired Giovanni van Bronkhorst. Pieters came on after half-time in the meaningless friendly against Ukraine in August last year and has only missed one match since.

Another example is Kevin Strootman, who joined PSV this summer. Strootman was in and out of the Under-21 side in 2009-10, when he was relegated with his club Sparta Rotterdam. While his team-mates Niek Viergever and Erik Falkenburg stayed in the Eredivisie with a double move to AZ, Strootman struggled in the second tier as Sparta dived into a mid-table position. During the winter break, FC Utrecht used their Europa League income to splash around €700,000 on the left midfielder and within a month he was the star in a 3-0 home win over Ajax and earned a call for the national team. In June, he started against Brazil and took charge in midfield without hesitation. This convinced PSV to pay a hefty €4 million for him, handing FC Utrecht a nice profit. Had PSV taken the chance on Strootman six months earlier, they would have paid €3 million less and might have won the title. Hindsight is, of course, a wonderful thing.

It goes to show that although the Eredivisie is a relatively unheralded league, the Dutch players who ply their trade at home have relatively little trouble finding a place in Van Marwijk's side. Even the out-of-form players abroad have flourished for the national team. Eljero Elia struggled to keep his place at ailing Hamburg, but as a sub for Netherlands he whizzed past everyone in his path, while Klaas-Jan Huntelaar failed to score for Schalke in 15 successive games but was on the scoresheet against Austria during that spell. And despite the team being bereft of the world-class Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie through injury for most of last season, the Dutch still kept on winning.

So Van Marwijk has built a machine in which the cogs are by and large replaceable. The almost ever-present Wesley Sneijder could be defined as the leader but his deputy, Rafael van der Vaart, might well be able to replace him. And don't forget Ibrahim Afellay, who is eager to impress during his appearances for the Dutch team when he is not making them at Barcelona. These attacking midfielders are backed by a strong defensive block that has not changed - Van Bronckorst aside - since last year's World Cup final in Johannesburg.

Glancing at the fixture list for September, Spain should be able to reclaim their No. 1 position, though they may not in the long run. Rumour has it that their team is falling apart. The seven Clasicos in five months at the end of last season are believed to have had a devastating effect on team spirit and one wonders what went through the mind of national coach Vicente Del Bosque when he saw the fights after the latest edition in last Wednesday's Supercopa. He has to pick up the pieces and mend them before his squad travels to Euro 2012.

It is obvious that Jose Mourinho is on the warpath and, with his Real Madrid team unable to rival Barcelona in footballing terms, the Portuguese has chosen to focus on belligerent and antagonistic tactics. This could make the Primera Division very exciting this season, but it might hamper the chances of the national team to achieve another big success next summer. Del Bosque's will be praying that a Real-Barca Champions League final in May in Munich is avoided. Imagine his players kicking each other all over the Allianz Arena before the losers are forced to join the winners the next morning on a plane to Warsaw or Kiev to prepare for Spain's European Championship title defence. A nightmare scenario for Del Bosque; a dream for Van Marwijk.

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