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Brazil's dubious distinction

Five Aside Jul 12, 2014
Read
 Posted by Raphael Honigstein
Jun 22, 2014

Lens looks to take his chance

Were the Dutch complacent against Australia or did their opponents expose some defensive frailties that Louis van Gaal needs to address?

RIO DE JANEIRO -- Klaas-Jan Huntelaar has scored 34 goals in 62 games for the Netherlands. "The Hunter" arrived in Brazil in great shape and form, having scored 14 goals for Schalke 04 in 21 games after the winter break (he had missed the first six months with a knee injury).

His career total reads: 434 professional games and 278 goals. That's an incredible 0.64 goals per game. And at Monday lunchtime, when Oranje play their last group game against Chile in Sao Paulo without their suspended captain and first-choice striker Robin van Persie, Huntelaar will be on the bench. Again.

It's nothing personal. Louis van Gaal was widely expected to make a decision in principle when he took over after Euro 2012, a catastrophe of a tournament for the Netherlands beset by internal squabbles, including an ugly rivalry between Huntelaar and Van Persie. He did make a decision, and it couldn't have been clearer.

"Huntelaar is my No. 1 striker," Van Gaal said before his first game in charge in August 2012 "Van Persie will have to fight for the position."

The fight, as Dutch newspaper Algemeen Dagblad noted this week, didn't last long. The Manchester United striker quickly re-established himself as first choice for Oranje and soon became captain as well.

Going into the World Cup, Huntelaar was apparently under no illusions about his chances to play. His stock has fallen so low that he isn't even seen as a natural replacement for Van Persie anymore. Van Gaal will only call upon him as an impact striker, perhaps when the Netherlands are chasing a goal and need to take a more direct route to goal.

Huntelaar's unceremonious style -- he's an out-and-out goalscorer and a poacher, not a playing centre-forward or a winger by nature like Arjen Robben -- is considered too one-dimensional by a Dutch side who have to maximise creativity in the final third because they don't have much of it elsewhere.

So far, Huntelaar has taken his demotion remarkably well. He has kept his counsel -- on the record -- and there are no reports of him letting off steam in the passive-aggressive fashion beloved by unhappy benchwarmers everywhere. Then again, the Netherlands haven't lost a game yet.

- 50-50 Challenge: Netherlands vs. Chile

The Euro 2012 in-fighting only came to the fore after the Dutch were effectively knocked out of the competition when they lost their second match 2-1 to Germany. Huntelaar was given a starting berth in the third game, against Portugal, but didn't perform well. Hugo Borst, the author of a recent Van Gaal biography, claimed the rest of the team were "sabotaging" the striker in that game by never passing him the ball.

The clamour for Huntelaar to start ahead of Van Persie has since subsided. His popularity at that time was based on his personality as much as his record. He had scored 48 goals in as many games for Schalke in the 2011-12 season, but more importantly, the Dutch public seemed to like him as a person more than Van Persie. "Huntelaar was seen as more Dutch, somehow," one journalist with friends in the dressing room said.

Now it seems the Netherlands as a whole, along with Van Gaal, have remembered they prefer their centre-forwards to be integral parts of the creative process, not just guys who sign off everybody else's work with a final touch inside the six-yard box.

Jeremain Lens has replaced Robin van Persie in each of the Netherlands' games so far. On Monday, he will start against Chile.

They would rather have another winger next to Robben or even a less prolific forward with limited international experience, which is where Jeremain Lens will come in. The 26-year-old striker, who plays for Dynamo Kiev in Ukraine, has scored eight goals for the Netherlands in 24 games. Five of those came in World Cup qualifiers.

The former AZ and PSV forward had been a mainstay in Van Gaal's 4-3-3 system but found himself out of favour when the team changed to 3-5-2 ahead of the first game in Brazil against Spain.

"I don't see myself as a victim," Lens said. "There's no point whining about it." He has made sure to express his willingness to start from the bench -- "I'm always eager to come on" -- and will be rewarded with a start against Chile.

Both nations have already qualified for the round of 16, but the Dutch would like to win the group in order to avoid hosts Brazil in the next round. Lens can play on either flank or through the middle, he has pace, he likes taking on opponents on, and he can score too.

In short, he's exactly the sort of forward the Dutch love. (Van Gaal, it's worth pointing out, did work with orthodox target man Mario Gomez at Bayern Munich, but there was always an element of tactical tension between the two.) Whether Lens will feature in a 3-5-2 with Robben or as a trident in a 4-3-3 with Robben and veteran Dirk Kuyt on the flanks remains to be seen.

"Lens is the ideal 12th man," De Telegraaf wrote. In his competition debut as a starter, he can prove that the Dutch have the necessary depth to go further in the competition.

All that Huntelaar can do, meanwhile, is show that he's not a bad 13th man.

Raphael Honigstein

Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and a regular guest on ESPN FC TV. He also writes for the Guardian, among other outlets, and is author of Englischer Fussball.