Football / World Cup USA '94: Preud'homme in relaxed route to success: Group F: Belgian goalkeeper makes difference as Dutch fail to fulfil their promise

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IN A competition that hitherto has not been illuminated by the standard of its goalkeeping, the display of skill and courage from Michel Preud'homme to decide this north European argument stood out like a beacon of brilliance under a merciless Florida sun.

The man for whom the World Cup had always conjured images of nerves and nightmares refused to be beaten, leaving the Netherlands' route to the second round once more a hazardous journey riddled with holes and doubt.

It is never easy for the nation who, every four years, appear to have assembled a team good enough to take on the best, only then to find a way of blowing themselves up.

Against Saudi Arabia in Washington, they were rescued only through late goals by Wim Jonk and Gaston Taument.

We thought it was a case of first- night nerves, but should have known that morale is never a prime asset with these temperamental technocrats.

Amid temperatures that produced a staggering index (heat and humidity combined) of 120 degrees, the Citrus Bowl presented a colourful sight. With the vast banks of Dutch support it was more like the Orange Bowl but, while the favoured side threw away any number of chances, Belgium prevailed and assured themselves of a second-round place.

Philippe Albert marked his return from suspension with the decisive goal, Michel De Wolf tidied up at the back, Georges Grun powered forward impressively and Marc Degryse and Josip Weber worried the defensively fragile Ronald Koeman every time they were in possession.

Yet towering over all rivals was the 35-year-old Preud'homme, who this time round is more calm and less obsessive about his business and is a superior keeper as a result. Jonk described him as 'fantastic, the difference between the teams' while Degryse said he had proved himself the best in the world.

Preud'homme, who just before the start of the World Cup joined Benfica, of Portugal, was suspended in 1986 along with eight other players for a match-rigging scandal involving his club side. 'In Italy in 1990 I was very uptight, I spent hours and hours watching tapes of other teams and matches,' he said. 'I was over-prepared. This time I am far more relaxed, going for long walks with friends and generally taking it easy. As a result I feel more positive about my goalkeeping.'

So it was Belgium who celebrated their ticket to the next round where they could face Ireland, or Italy, in Orlando, a difficult pairing for the winners of Group F when second place would produce a likely meeting with Sweden in Dallas.

Dennis Bergkamp agreed that second could be best but said it did not form part of the Dutch thinking. 'It is very difficult to make your aim second place,' he said. 'The safest thing is to finish first and then you definitely go through.'

BELGIUM (1-4-3-2): Preud'homme (Benfica); De Wolf; Emmers, Albert (all Anderlecht), Grun (Parma), Borkelmans; Staelens, Van der Elst (all Club Bruges), Scifo (Monaco); Degryse, Weber (both Anderlecht). Substitutes: Smidts (Antwerp) for Borkelmans, 58; Medved (Club Bruges) for Emmers, 69.

NETHERLANDS (1-3-4-2): De Goey (Feyenoord); Koeman (Barcelona); Valckx (Sporting Lisbon), Rijkaard, F de Boer (both Ajax); Taument (Feyenoord), Jonk (Internazionale), Wouters (PSV Eindhoven), Roy (Foggia); R de Boer (Ajax), Bergkamp (Internazionale). Substitutes: Witschge (Feyenoord) for R de Boer, h-t; Overmars (Ajax) for Taument, 63.

Referee: R Marsiglia (Brazil).

(Photograph omitted)