Fortune favours the old as Advocaat selects veterans

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The Independent Football

Luck is supposed to even itself out in football, but the Dutch have waited a long time for Dame Fortune to find her balance in the European Championship. Only now will the Netherlands feel the scales are level again.

Luck is supposed to even itself out in football, but the Dutch have waited a long time for Dame Fortune to find her balance in the European Championship. Only now will the Netherlands feel the scales are level again.

For many of Dick Advocaat's team, who play the hosts, Portugal, in Euro 2004's first semi-final at the Estadio Jose Alvalade tonight, have been lucky this tournament. After qualifying through the play-offs, overcoming Scotland despite losing at Hampden Park, they have reached the last four after winning just one match, against Latvia. Germany's inability to defeat a reserve Czech Republic team in the final group match allowed them to qualify for the quarter-finals. There the Swedes hit both bar and post in extra-time before losing on penalties.

That victory was, however, about time as far as the Oranje were concerned. Even by English standards, the Dutch have suffered. Since the Rinus Michels team of Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard won in 1988 they went out on penalties in three successive tournaments. In 1992 it was in the semi-final to Denmark, in 1996 the quarter-final to France. In 2000 they romped to the semi-finals with four straight wins and 13 goals, then managed just one successful kick in losing to Italy in Amsterdam. In between, they even lost the 1998 World Cup semi-final to Brazil on spot-kicks.

The old doubts about the Dutch tendency to self-destruct resurfaced with each failure but, having finally laid the ghost in Faro on Saturday, they have renewed belief.

Not that Advocaat has entirely won over his critics, one of whom said on national television that he should be "stoned or hanged" after his infamous substitutions preceded defeat in the group game against the Czechs.

Even now there is, at best, only a grudging respect for Advocaat, who has opted to coax one more tournament out of the veterans rather than make a wholesale injection of youth. Thus while Arjen Robben and Andy van der Meyde have displaced Marc Overmars and Boudewijn Zenden, Wesley Sneijder and Rafael van der Vaart remain on the bench behind Phillip Cocu, Edgar Davids and Clarence Seedorf.

Advocaat has resisted any triumphalism, merely commenting: "Sometimes when you are trying to make something happen and you make changes, you have to live with the consequences. We are fine now, we have improved."

The Dutch, he said, would not allow Portugal to control the match as England did after Michael Owen's early goal in the quarter-final. "We play differently," said Advocaat. "We play further up the pitch and have natural width."

Sensitive to the criticism coaches receive, he added that Sven Goran Eriksson may well have asked England's players to push forward but "saying it, and having it happen, are two different things in football".

The Portuguese are a similar blend of youth and experience, Luiz Felipe Scolari having had the courage, eventually, to drop his stellar names just as Advocaat finally omitted Patrick Kluivert. The last star, Luis Figo, will keep his place despite his early withdrawal against England, but Rui Costa is expected to remain on the bench.

Unless Scolari decides to recall Pauleta after suspension, at the expense of Nuno Gomes, Portugal will thus be unchanged, although there is an argument for recalling Simao Sabrosa ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo.

The Dutch have to replace Frank de Boer, who is out with ankle ligament damage. Wilfred Bouma steps in. They should otherwise be unchanged, with Michael Reiziger retaining his place at right-back ahead of Johnny Heitinga. That decision, said Scolari yesterday, should keep the referee, Anders Frisk, on his toes ensuring that Reiziger does the same when taking throw-ins.

In a calculated move to influence the official, Scolari said: "The referee has to be very attentive to some situations. Especially Reiziger, who sometimes lifts his foot off the pitch as he makes long throw-ins, and [Ruud] Van Nistelrooy, who sometimes stands offside at free-kicks and takes advantage of it."

There were shades, there, of the old "Big Phil" who was notorious for his gamesmanship when he was the manager of Gremio and Palmeiras. Perhaps the pressure is building on him as well as Advocaat. Portugal have never reached a final. Thirteen other European nations have done so in either this competition or the World Cup including Belgium, Denmark and Sweden. Portugal, home to two European Cup-winning clubs, are the only significant post-war football power not to reach a final.

Three times they have reached the last four, in the 1966 World Cup and the European Championships of 1984 and 2000. They have home advantage, two days' extra recovery time, a wily coach and a vibrant team. Portugal should do it this time but they must keep their nerve. The Dutch are due a good performance and, suddenly, they feel lucky.