Despair for Dutch as elimination looms

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The Independent Football

In all the excitement created by the events of Saturday night in Munich, it was easy to miss an almost equally significant shift in the power struggle of European football: the Netherlands are about to miss out on a World Cup for the first time since 1986. A 1-0 defeat by the Republic of Ireland's 10 men means they cannot catch Mick McCarthy's team in Group Two and can only make the play-offs in the unlikely event of Portugal managing fewer than three points from matches against Cyprus, tomorrow, and Estonia next month.

Dutch followers have developed a fatalistic approach to their country's fortunes. In major tournaments the Oranje have lost a penalty shoot-out in four of the last five big championships, three of them at the semi-final stage, but the least they expect is to qualify.

Even in 1986 the Dutch made it as far as a play-off, losing on away goals to their oldest rivals Belgium; two years earlier they only missed out on the European Championship finals because Spain, needing to beat Malta in their final match by 11 goals, won 12-0. So not since the 1982 World Cup has there been such a clear failure as this, brought about by losing two and drawing two of the four key matches, against the Irish and the Portuguese.

Louis van Gaal, who took charge for the opening match of the campaign, in which Ireland led 2-0 in Amsterdam before conceding two late goals, has tried 36 players in 12 months. Even with Dennis Bergkamp and Aron Winter retiring, and Edgar Davids and Frank de Boer suspended for alleged drugs offences, he seemed to have found the right blend just in time, the 2-0 victory over England last month impressing everyone who saw it. That proved to be a false dawn and now dark clouds are gathering over the coach, who claimed in Dublin: "If I analyse the match, I do not see what people can blame us for."

Failing to match Ireland's spirit and determination was one suggestion. Ruud Gullit, who played for the Netherlands 66 times, also criticised Van Gaal's tactics after Gary Kelly had been sent off. "With 11 men against 10 you must make them play out wide," Gullit said. "I do not understand why Van Gaal takes off Zenden and Overmars and picks a central player like Hasselbaink wide. But we didn't lose qualification here, we lost it in the home games against Ireland and Portugal."

But the former Tottenham and Nottingham Forest midfielder Johnny Metgod, now a coach at Feyenoord, said: "I don't think you can blame the coach. If we had taken one of two very good chances early on, to Kluivert and Zenden, it would have been a totally different game. What's sad is that young players like Van Bommel and Hofland won't get the chance to improve their development by playing in the World Cup."

Meanwhile, the Football Association of Ireland has denied reports that Mick McCarthy's contract as manager expires in October, before the play-offs. "It runs until next February, so there's no great urgency," a spokesman said.