Football / World Cup '94: Koeman sees his place in danger: James Traynor in Utrecht considers a Dutch master whose powers are fading

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The Independent Online
RONALD KOEMAN, the most-capped player in the Netherlands' World Cup squad, sat almost motionless at the side of the pitch here as the Dutch side went through another fine-tuning exercise against Scotland. He, and the other 17,000 in the stadium, liked the look of the national team which will have two more preparatory outings, against Hungary in Eindhoven on Wednesday and Canada in Toronto on 12 June, before starting their fourth World Cup finals in Orlando.

The Netherlands beat Scotland 3-1 without breaking sweat and without Dennis Bergkamp, Frank Rijkaard and Koeman, who appeared deep in thought at times during the match. He knows people are beginning to doubt his powers.

His lethargic display at the heart of Barcelona's defence in the European Cup final won easily by Milan added credence to the notion that his aura of greatness, present since his international debut against Sweden 11 years ago, is dissipating. The Dutch coach, Dick Advocaat, is hoping that a couple of weeks' rest will replenish enthusiasm and energy. Others are not quite so sure.

They say his legs have gone and that he can be turned easily by fleet-footed strikers. Wim Jonk played the first half at the back of a 1-2-3-3-1 system against Scotland - then he swapped places with Jan Wouters, who had been in the first row of three - and cruised through the evening. He even played a superb 30- yard pass for the second Dutch goal and confirmed his status as the man in form, but Advocaat does not believe he can accommodate both Jonk and Koeman.

He seems to have settled on playing Wouters through the middle, and with Rijkaard in right midfield it seems a straight choice between the 31- year-old Koeman and Jonk, who is three years younger.

The consensus among the Dutch players, home from various parts of the football globe for the close season, favoured Koeman, however. Pointing to a tree 50 yards from the stadium's main entrance Freddy van der Hoorn, Dundee United's central defender, applied straightforward logic.

'Do you think Koeman would be playing for Barcelona if he could no longer pull his weight?' he asked. 'If you were to say to Koeman hit that tree with the ball he would hit it every time. This is not the strongest Dutch squad ever, but Koeman has to play.'

At least it is certain that Ruud Gullit, who played for the national side for the first time since being substituted 13 months ago at Wembley, is ready to lead by example and from the front. He played for only the first half against Scotland, but that was enough to convince everyone that the striker remains in possession of all his skills.

James Traynor is football correspondent for The Herald