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Louis van Gaal's hand in Netherlands decline as World Cup miss looms

Netherlands have now given themselves a fighting chance of qualifying for Russia 2018, but even as Dick Advocaat's team milked the applause of the Johan Cruyff Arena following Sunday's crucial 3-1 victory against Bulgaria, there was a sense of it being a win which merely delayed the inevitable.

World Cup finalists in 2010, semifinalists in Brazil four years later, yet the Dutch are in need of a mathematical miracle to qualify for next year's tournament in Russia, even after the result against Bulgaria in Amsterdam.

It will require a victory against Belarus in Minsk next month, followed by an emphatic win at home to Sweden in their final Group A game on Oct. 10, for the Dutch to have any hope of a playoff place, never mind automatic qualification as group winners.

And if Sweden claim a convincing win at home to Luxembourg -- the minnows who secured a memorable 0-0 draw against France in Toulouse on Sunday night -- their goal-difference advantage over Netherlands, which stands at +6, will leave the Dutch requiring a rout against the Swedes to leapfrog them into second.

So how has it come to this? How has one of Europe's traditional powerhouses found itself on the slippery slope to qualification failure, so soon after coming within a penalty shootout of reaching successive World Cup finals just three years ago?

Having failed to qualify for Euro 2016, when a tumultuous qualification campaign ended with the Dutch finishing fourth in a five-team group, their predicament was certainly well sign-posted.

But for all the romance which surrounds the Dutch, the images of Cruyff, Johan Neeskens and co. bringing "Total Football" to the world in the 1970s, of Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten inspiring the Oranje to success at Euro '88, or the more recent greats of Patrick Kluivert, Dennis Bergkamp, Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder, football in the Netherlands has been in decline for some time.

The highlights of the last two World Cups have perhaps papered over cracks which some in the Netherlands believe date back to the mid-1990s, when Dutch football was riding the crest of a wave inspired by Louis van Gaal's Champions League-winning Ajax team of 1995.

The theory is that, while Van Gaal's team restored Ajax and Dutch football to the summit of the European game, the long-term ramifications of the coach's football philosophy have led to a generation of footballers devoid of the flair, confidence and audacity of their predecessors.

Back in 2010 and 2014, the likes of Robben, Sneijder and Robin van Persie gave the Dutch the edge in terms of game-changing quality, but they emerged from the last group of players to have developed as a youngsters before the Van Gaal influence began to take hold.

Louis van Gaal led Netherlands to the 2014 World Cup semifinals but has left little by way of a legacy.

During the disastrous Euro 2016 qualifiers, when Guus Hiddink was replaced as coach by Danny Blind during the campaign, Cruyff, a long-standing critic of Van Gaal's philosophy, claimed that "Holland is the world champion of passing sideways and back" in a thinly veiled dig at his old foe.

Nowadays, the pool of talent is worryingly shallow, with the 34-year-old Van Persie recalled to the last squad by Advocaat, after a two-year absence and Robben, 33, still the team's best player and talisman.

The young stars promoted by Van Gaal in 2014 have, almost to a man, dropped off the radar and failed to live up to their previous billing.

Jordy Clasie's move to the Premier League with Southampton has been unsuccessful, with the midfielder loaned out to Club Brugge last week, while Memphis Depay endured a disastrous 18 months at Manchester United before moving to Lyon last season.

Georginio Wijnaldum is at least showing consistency and form with Liverpool, while Daley Blind is a steady, if unspectacular, performer at Manchester United, but look around the big hitters of the Champions League and count the Dutch players at Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich or Juventus.

Robben remains at Bayern and goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen is a back-up keeper at Barca, but the days of Dutch players populating the squads of Europe's biggest clubs appear to be over.

By reaching last season's Europa League final, before losing to United in Stockholm, Ajax suggested that their production line was once again beginning to churn out potential stars of the future.

But less than six months on, Ajax are facing only their second season without European football, beyond the qualifying rounds, since the 1960s after being denied a place in the Europa League group stages by Rosenborg last month.

Netherlands coach Dick Advocaat (left) recalled 34-year-old Robin van Persie (right) after a two-year absence.

The alarm bells have been ringing for a while, though.

Van Gaal guided the Dutch to the semifinals in 2014, but former captain Mark van Bommel claimed that was more a result of Robben's incredible form in Brazil, rather than Van Gaal's influence.

Van Bommel claimed in October 2016 that problems lay ahead, warning that the current crop of players are "too romantic," and "don't have enough of a winning mentality. They prefer playing well to winning. Our young talents are less good than those of 10 years ago."

Following the run to the semifinals in 2014, the Dutch football federation (KNVB), attempted to plan for the future by launching its "Winners of Tomorrow" blueprint, seeking advice from key figures at home and abroad about ways to boost the development of its players,

That initiative will take time to bear fruit, so a second successive failure to a reach a major tournament will hurt Dutch football at the worst possible time.

The players do not appear to be up to the task and there are no young saviours appearing on the horizon.

Russia 2018 will be poorer without the Dutch, but the world may have to get used to the idea of the tournament taking place with them absent.

Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_


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