Football: Dutch rely on formidable strength in depth: Netherlands hit by injuries in run-up to crucial World Cup qualifying match with England. Joe Lovejoy reports

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The Independent Online
AFTER the phoney war, the real thing starts in earnest on Wednesday, when the Dutch come to Wembley not hampered by apprehension, like Turkey and San Marino, but to win.

The Netherlands regard England, not the leaders, Norway, as the obstacle to be overcome if they are to qualify from World Cup Group Two, and see it as a them-or-us situation.

It is always a special occasion when the flamboyant extemporizers of European football come to call, but this one is spicier than most - a sell-out well in advance. Them-or-us would seem to be the attitude here, too.

Brazil apart, no visitors set the adrenalin flowing quite like the free spirits in that famous orange strip. Italy may be just as skilful, Germany more successful, but if English Football Man could be anyone else, he would probably choose to be Dutch.

Unfortunately, while their fans have much in common with England's - not all of it nice - Graham Taylor's team is not held in reciprocal esteem just across the North Sea, and Ruud Gullit and company travel not just in hope, but in expectation of an important win.

Not even the absence of Marco van Basten, the World and European Footballer of the Year, has shaken their confidence. Van Basten is recuperating after an ankle operation and Ronald Koeman, the influential libero, and Berry van Aerle, an experienced defender are also out injured, but replacements of the calibre of Peter van Vossen, Danny Blind and Sonny Silooy would walk into most international teams, and the Dutch approach the tie with equanimity.

Typical is the attitude of Johan Cruyff, the greatest Dutchman of them all, who will take leave of absence from Barcelona to take his heirs to the finals next year. Always provided, of course, that the present coach, Dick Advocaat, does the donkey work for him, and gets them there.

Cruyff sees nothing to fear in England. 'Your problem is lack of individual skill,' he said. 'Bobby Charlton was a world-class player, so was Kevin Keegan, but England no longer have such players. It is not Graham Taylor's tactics that are at fault, it is the fact that you no longer have players with the skill to outplay the opposition.'

It is a theme taken up by Arnold Muhren, who retains a fondness for English football after distinguished midfield service with Ipswich Town and Manchester United.

Fond yes, deferential no. Muhren believes England's standards are deteriorating, and said: 'You need more class players. You have two very good ones, Gascoigne and Platt, and they will have to be watched very carefully, but you need better forwards. There are no front players good enough to trouble Holland.

'It surprised us here that England did not pick Chris Waddle. We see a lot of English football on TV, and I've been very impressed with Waddle, but I gather he said something against the manager that he did not like.

'What you need most is a forward who can score goals regularly. With the retirement of Lineker, you seem to be struggling there. I saw England play San Marino, and beat them 6-0, but I wasn't really impressed. It is important that Holland do not lose on Wednesday, and I don't think we will. I think we will win.'

Reasonable enough. The Netherlands are the more accomplished team. But before the English tear up their tickets and concede the points, a little devil's advocacy is needed in the interests of critical balance.

Taylor watched the Dutch win 3-1 in Turkey in December, and was in no way intimidated by what he saw. 'It could easily have gone the other way,' he said. 'I'm sure we can put out a team who will give Holland plenty of problems.'

There was a tendency, the England manager felt, to treat the Dutch with exaggerated respect. 'Because, over the years, they have produced such gifted players, there is a perception that this is a special side, but I think you can ruffle Holland if you play a certain way. Of course they are strong opponents, but don't let's go over the top about them.'

Recent results tend to support Taylor's argument. The Dutch are good, but by no means invincible. Like England, they were caught cold by Norway first time out, losing 2-1 in Oslo.

Since that September day, the two sides have followed parallel paths - England drawing 1-1 with the Norwegians at Wembley the night the Netherlands shared the points at home to Poland (2-2), and England beating Turkey at home and away while the Dutch were doing likewise. They even produced identical scores (6-0) at home to San Marino.

Seven points apiece, then, and nothing there for Cruyff and his cohorts to crow about.

Muhren, though, points out that England have the trickier task, with tough away games against Poland (29 May), Norway (2 June) and the Netherlands (13 October). The Dutch also have to play in Poland (17 November) in a final fixture riddled with potential pitfalls, but Oslo is out of the way, and if they avoid defeat on Wednesday, the odds will shorten appreciably in their favour.

According to Muhren: 'It is pretty even at the moment, with Norway, England and Holland all on seven points, but England have the most difficult programme. In Holland, people think Norway are already going to America, and it is between England and Holland for the second place. If we don't lose on Wednesday, we should be all right, and I think we'll win - by one goal.'

Injuries, for once, are not England's exclusive preserve, and Advocaat's preparations have been disrupted not only by the loss of Van Basten, Koeman, Van Aerle and Wim Jonk, the highly rated Ajax midfielder, but also by doubts surrounding the fitness of Frank Rijkaard and Dennis Bergkamp. Quite a six-a-side team, that.

Some things we do know. Hans van Breukelen, the long-serving goalkeeper, has retired since the European Championship, as has his stalwart defender, Adri van Tiggelen, but most of the faces will be familiar.

Feyenoord's Ed de Goey is now established as first-choice keeper, having distinguished himself since ousting Stanley Menzo, of Ajax, who was Van Breukelen's regular understudy. Menzo was blamed for both goals conceded in the 2-2 draw with Poland. De Goey, in contrast, was the star of the 3-1 win in Turkey, where Van Vossen scored twice, but said: 'For me, Ed was the hero. Turkey could have been 2-0 up before we had a chance.'

Van Vossen also got two against the Poles, and the Anderlecht striker is expected to continue in the Van Basten role next week.

Protecting De Goey, Blind is an experienced replacement for Koeman, who is still troubled by the calf injury which has kept him out of the Barcelona team for the last two weeks.

Rijkaard is another doubt. If he is fit, he could turn up almost anywhere - possibly as right wing-back this time, in place of Van Aerle, with Frank de Boer, having an excellent season with Ajax, on the left.

The centre-half will be the hirsute character they call the Wolf Man. Johnny de Wolfe looks like a cross between Meatloaf and Micky Droy, but you would not want to tell him. The big, bad Wolfe is not a man to take liberties with - as Lineker found when he was gobbled up in Tottenham's Cup-Winners' Cup defeat by Feyenoord last season. Les Ferdinand will need all his pace to avoid the same fate.

The Dutch midfield is never predictable, as a legion of baffled opponents will testify, but the likelihood is that it will be staffed by two fairly orthodox practitioners, Rob Witschge of Feyenoord on the left and Bayern Munich's Jan Wouters central, with Gullit 'floating' on the right and Bergkamp in the 'hole', just behind the two main forwards - a la Gazza.

Van Vossen, an industrious runner with a competitive streak, is odds-on favourite for the centre-forward position, ahead of Bosman, although the Anderlecht man's aerial prowess could still win him a place, if Advocaat deems it to be an occasion for experience rather than the youthful promise of the Ajax left winger, Marc Overmans. The smart guilders are on the 19-year-old getting the chance to run at Lee Dixon.

'So many good players, so many options,' Muhren mused. 'And we need only 16 to your 22.' Ouch.

----------------------------------------------------------------- GROUP TWO STANDINGS ----------------------------------------------------------------- P W D L F A Pts Norway. . . . . 4 3 1 0 15 2 7 England. . . . .4 3 1 0 13 1 7 Netherlands. . .5 3 1 1 15 6 7 Poland. . . . . 2 1 1 0 3 2 3 Turkey. . . . . 7 1 1 5 6 14 3 San Marino. . . 6 0 1 5 1 28 1 -----------------------------------------------------------------

REMAINING FIXTURES: 28 Apr: England v Netherlands, Norway v Turkey, Poland v San Marino. 19 May: San Marino v Poland. 29 May: Poland v England. 2 June: Norway v England. 9 June: Netherlands v Norway. 8 Sept: England v Poland. 22 Sept: San Marino v Netherlands, Norway v Poland. 13 Oct: Netherlands v England, Poland v Norway. 27 Oct: Turkey v Poland. 10 Nov: Turkey v Norway. 16 Nov: San Marino v England *. 17 Nov: Poland v Netherlands. * May be played 17 Nov.

(Photograph omitted)