Advocaat bedevilled by detractors

Troubled Dutch experiment with new formation as the old enmity strikes
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Holland and their Victor Meldrew of a manager, Dick Advocaat, have one foot in the Algarve, where they are preparing for Tuesday's Group D fixture against Germany, and the other, if a sceptical Dutch media are to be believed, in the grave of their Euro 2004 aspirations.

Holland and their Victor Meldrew of a manager, Dick Advocaat, have one foot in the Algarve, where they are preparing for Tuesday's Group D fixture against Germany, and the other, if a sceptical Dutch media are to be believed, in the grave of their Euro 2004 aspirations.

Under the bluff, cantankerous Advocaat, Holland lost at home without scoring to two non-qualifiers, Belgium and the Republic of Ireland, in warm-up games. Pessimism is rife among the press and public, yet one of the senior outfield players in the tournament's oldest squad argues that the future may yet be orange.

Marc Overmars, the former Arsenal winger who leaves Barcelona after the finals, knows from the experience of the play-offs which brought Holland to Portugal how rapidly form and expectations can be transformed. Four days after losing 1-0 to Scotland on Advocaat's old stamping ground in Glasgow, the Dutch vanquished Berti Vogts' side 6-0 in Amsterdam. "If we'd won the last few friendlies 4-0, people would be saying we'd peaked too early,'' said Overmars, 31, who has been an international for 12 years. "Because we've lost two, they think it'll be a bad tournament. So which is right? It depends on this [he snapped his fingers]. If we start well, the whole thing can turn straightaway.

"It's vital not to lose the first match, because then you have to win the last two [against Latvia and the vaunted Czech Republic]. When you win the first one, you have one leg in the next round,'' he added, the latter phrase suggesting he may have watched the original Meldrew during his sojourn at Highbury.

Overmars could be handed a starting role against the Germans, especially if Arjen Robben and Rafael van der Vaart fail to recover from injury. Whatever the personnel, Advocaat is set to abandon his experiment with a 4-4-2 formation and the concept of pairing Ruud van Nistelrooy and Patrick Kluivert.

Hinting at a return to a 4-3-3 system that could mutate into 4-2-3-1, with the Manchester United man likely to be complemented by two wide players, he finally conceded that the two strikers appeared incompatible. "I really wanted them to play together, but it has been proved that they don't gel. It's a great shame.''

The former Rangers manager was in bullish mood as he met his detractors at the Dutch base in Faro. In a tirade which resembled Sir Alex Ferguson's time-honoured tactic of bonding players by creating the impression that the world is against them, Advocaat rounded on his arch critic, the TV summariser and former Holland player Jan Mulder.

"Everybody has preferences for players and systems, but the pundits have been putting the boot in, saying my players earn so much money, are arrogant and aren't working hard enough. But this guy [Mulder] was the first to move from Holland to Anderlecht and sign a mega-contract. He drove a big sports wagon and had loads of francs, and was the first one to flash it around.''

But wasn't the pressure getting to him? "Oh yeah, it really is,'' replied Advocaat, the mocking sarcasm providing a reminder of how he used to handle the pressure-cooker clamour of an Old Firm derby, which has certain similarities with any meeting of Holland and Germany.

"The squad have stayed very calm. I've taken all the punches and I'm prepared to do that for my players. Look, in pre-season, big clubs sometimes lose to amateur teams after hard training sessions. We had a tough training regime before we played Ireland, who are not an amateur outfit. That's why I'm not worried.''

Overmars, for his part, shrugged off the condemnation of Co Adriaanse, the former Ajax coach, who has declared that Holland will never win anything with Advocaat in charge. "If the players didn't believe in Dick then I'm sure this would have been talked out,'' he said. "But that hasn't been the case.''

The Dutch are pinning considerable faith in the belief that the mere fact of facing Germany will stimulate the competitive edge so lacking against Ireland and Belgium. Likening a game of football to a war is always invidious, but the Nazi occupation of Holland six decades ago has frequently provided a subtext to matches between the neighbours.

At their semi-final in Euro 88, a Dutch banner read, "We have come to get our bikes back'', a reference to their wartime confiscation by the Germans. That tournament remains the only one which Holland, for all the sumptuous technique of Cruyff and Rensenbrink, Gullit and Muhren, have ever won.

Much as they have done this summer, Holland came to Italy 16 years ago burdened by deflating home results: a defeat by Bulgaria and a draw with Romania. Despair deepened when they lost to the Soviet Union in their first match, in which an unsung attacker was belatedly thrown on in an attempt to scrape a point.

Marco van Basten kept his place, and the striker with a heavyweight boxer's body and a ballet-dancer's feet scored a hat-trick against England in the next game. Holland embarked on a run which led to their beating the Soviets in the final, when Van Basten scored one of the greatest goals of all time.

Maybe it is, after all, premature to dismiss the chances of Advocaat and the Overmars generation.