How the Dutch must resent the current German side. The Netherlands has long seen itself as a uniquely progressive and artistic football culture. The generation of players born in 1983 and 1984 – Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie – is a rarely gifted vintage, one certainly worthy of an international trophy.
But as the European Championship beckons and the Dutch play at Wembley tomorrow night in preparation, they are not considered plausible seizers of the Spanish crown.
Joachim Löw's German side is seen as the vanguard of innovation, youth and entertainment. Bert van Marwijk's Netherlands might have reached the 2010 World Cup final, but Germany, who fell one stage earlier, impressed more with a consistently enterprising brand of football, vivisecting England and Argentina 4-1 and 4-0 respectively.
Having built from their victory in the 2009 European Under-21 Championship, Germany provide a model for the moulding of a young national side. The late 1980s generation of Manuel Neuer, Mesut Özil, Thomas Müller and Jerome Boateng, supplemented by the even younger Toni Kroos and Mario Götze, are 3/1 second favourites behind Spain to win this summer's tournament in Poland and Ukraine. The Dutch are priced at 7/1.
When the two old rivals met in Hamburg for a friendly last November, Germany played with the cohesion and fluidity of a confident club side and won 3-0, with goals from Müller, Özil and Miroslav Klose. "We played with enthusiasm and lightness and combined with ease," Löw said afterwards. "The Dutch were apparently overwhelmed."
Van Marwijk's team will need to do much better in Kharkiv on 13 June, when they face the Germans again. The Dutch have been placed into the hardest group in the tournament, along with Denmark and Portugal.
But four years ago they were handed at least as difficult a group: Italy and France, two years before World Cup finalists, andRomania. They won it, winning all three games, before a surprise defeat to Russia.
And so the Netherlands can be forgiven for approaching the next few months with a tingling of desperation. Because if this generation of players cannot lift the trophy in Kiev on 1 July, it is uncertain whether they will ever do so. The next World Cup is in Brazil, putting the European elite at a disadvantage to their South American rivals. By Euro 2016 in France, Sneijder, Robben and Van Persie (pictured) will all be 32.
Clearly, another great effort will be required by those three if they are to deliver on their obvious gifts. In Van Persie's case, they can be most confident. In an amazing run dating back to New Year's Day 2011, he has scored 51 goals in 58 appearances for Arsenal. He can confidently claim to have been the best forward in the world behind Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in that period.
There are greater worries, though, over his two great partners. Sneijder has stagnated along with Internazionale since the famous treble of 2010. Jose Mourinho has gone, and with him much of Sneijder's drive, at least according to Dutch legend Marco van Basten. "He knows he cannot win the [Italian] title and is already thinking about the Euros," Van Basten said last week. "When Mourinho was at Inter, he was at his most motivated. Now there's chaos and suffering. It's not just Inter's fault, Sneijder could also be more professional." This year Inter have taken 12 points from the 13 games in which Sneijder has played, and 24 from the 12 he has not.
Robben, too, has not been replicating his 2010 form, largely due to groin surgery in October. "I still have daily pain," the Bayern Munich player said at the weekend. "This has been the worst injury of my career. I am getting better but I need games."
Van Marwijk knows he needs his stars but even he admits they need to get back to basics if they want to overthrow Germany and Spain.Reuse content