Football: Van Basten plays feelgood factor up front

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The Independent Online
"A GREAT centre-forward, very spectacular and good to watch." The praise was for Wayne Rooney last night, but it applies even more so to the man offering his verdict on Manchester United's man-child, as England supporters who still wince at the memory of Marco van Basten's hat-trick at Euro 88 will testify.

Van Basten, now 40, stood becalmed in the Villa Park rain last night, supervising the final training session of his Netherlands squad before tonight's friendly against England. As a striker, he had a heavyweight fighter's frame and ballet dancer's feet. When he came in from the cold to meet the media, it was clear the passing years have been kind to him.

Still trim and still smiling after eight months in his first coaching post - unless you count a season in charge of Ajax's second string - Van Basten was reminded that he had pledged to make playing for and following a notoriously fractious Dutch national team "fun" again. "That's still the case," he said. "We laugh a lot."

Had his fears that the opportunity had come too early been realised? "It's not an easy job. It has been hard to step up from the work I did at Ajax. But I've got some people helping me, including Johan Cruyff as an adviser.

"I am enjoying working with the top players, although sometimes it is not easy because you don't have them for long. It is also difficult because we have had to change a lot of players in a short time."

Never more so than tonight. Frank and Ronald de Boer, Paul Bosvelt, Jaap Stam and Marc Overmars have gone; Michael Reiziger, Edgar Davids, Phillip Cocu, Clarence Seedorf and Patrick Kluivert have been overlooked, largely due to lack of club action; and Pierre van Hooijdonk, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Arjen Robben are all injured.

"We're not a big country, like England, Spain, Italy or Germany," Van Basten said. "We're in a situation where we have to build. We need some time."

Time is something that Dutch fans seldom allow their team. The Oranje - who will wear black and white tonight in support of Thierry Henry's new anti-racist initiative - have started their World Cup qualifying group impressively, even beating their "bogey" team, the Czech Republic. But before the end of March they have two World Cup games, including one against Romania, that will test Van Basten's resourcefulness.

Asked for his reaction to the news that Robben has two broken bones in his left foot, causing him to miss not only six weeks or more with Chelsea but also perhaps the Netherlands' qualifiers against Armenia and Romania, Van Basten drew on his own painful experience. He had to give up a glittering career at 28 following a succession of ankle operations.

The former Ajax and Milan striker said: "The Premiership has seen what a world-class talent Arjen is, which is why people are now trying to kick him in order to stop him. Maybe he needs to be cleverer to avoid being kicked."

Ugur Yildirim, a 22-year-old of Turkish descent, will be one of the wide players striving to ensure Robben is not missed. The Heerenveen player elected to play for the Netherlands, where he was born and bred, despite pressure from his parents' country.

Yildirim arrives with a world title to his name, having beaten Zinedine Zidane in a competition to find the best set-piece exponent in Marbella last December. Yet he is no mere circus act, having established a reputation for precise delivery from the flanks as well as for his free-kick prowess.

Van Basten lost a midfielder, Ajax's Wesley Sneijder, to a hamstring injury yesterday, reducing the Amsterdam club's representation in the probable starting line-up to one.

In contrast, he is likely to start with three players from AZ 67 Alkmaar, the small provincial club lying two points behind PSV Eindhoven at the top of the Dutch league. PSV and AZ 67 meet on Saturday, so Sven Goran Eriksson is unlikely to be the only coach ringing the changes throughout tonight's match.