One of the great clichés is that to win the World Cup it is necessary to beat Brazil. In fact, eliminating Holland ensures a better chance. Four times in their last five appearances at the finals that has come to pass, bringing eventual success to their conquerors Germany (1974 and 1990), Argentina (1978) and Brazil (1994). Every incentive, then, for Luiz Felipe Scolari's unpredictable Portugal to halt the Oranje this evening or for England (or Ecuador) to do so in Gelsenkirchen on Saturday.
It would be difficult to argue that the Dutch squad on show here is on a similar level to those who paraded sublime skills at all the above tournaments, briefly redefining the very nature of the game with what was dubbed "total football" when they should have won the 1974 competition. Although listed third in Fifa's highly fallible rankings, Holland were generally a more realistic sixth or seventh in the betting lists before the first match, a price of about 14-1 acknowledging their misfortune in being drawn in the hardest section.
Far from being the death of them, however, Group C proved to be a tonic, offering valuable experience to a young squad on their way to victories over Serbia & Montenegro (1-0) and the Ivory Coast (2-1) before Argentina were held goalless last Wednesday.
Assessment based on that game was difficult, as Marco van Basten followed the general pattern by excluding five of the six players who would have been suspended today had they incurred another yellow card.
So Arjen Robben, Mark van Bommel and Giovanni van Bronckhorst were among those who watched a display at Frankfurt's Waldstadion that became more confident as the night progressed. After being threatened with drowning under the waves of attacking by Carlos Tevez, Lionel Messi, Juan Roman Riquelme and Maxi Rodriguez, the Dutch kept their heads above water and by the finish were swimming along comfortably.
That reflected particularly well on a notably inexperienced defence comprising men barely known outside Holland in Khalid Boulahrouz (Hamburg), Kew Jaliens (AZ Alkmaar), Andre Ooijer (PSV) and Tim de Cler (Alkmaar). Although Van Bronckhorst and Alkmaar's Joris Mathijsen are expected to return today, bringing younger, home-based players to Germany instead of some of the so-called "movie stars" like Edgar Davids and Clarence Seedorf has gone down well with Dutch supporters and improved the mood within a notoriously fractious camp.
Van Basten remembers with horror the infighting in 1990, in the tournament after his most famous goal helped win the European Championship, when some of the players demanded the replacement of Leo Beenhakker with Johan Cruyff. "It was no surprise we had a terrible tournament," Van Basten said. He has made a point of emphasising team spirit and togetherness this time round, not least by selecting 14 players from the home clubs Ajax, Alkmaar, PSV and Feyenoord.
That spirit might be tested today if Ruud van Nistelrooy is told by the man he once idolised that he is being dropped after two poor performances in three games. Against Argentina he was anonymous, and was not much better in the opening match, lasting no longer than 70 minutes in either before being hauled off.
Dirk Kuyt, the Feyenoord striker tracked by a number of Premiership clubs, was wastefully shipped out to the left wing to accommodate Van Nistelrooy but is now set to take his place in the centre. Arjen Robben will return, having been rested after two stunning games, and Arsenal's Robin van Persie may be reprieved despite looking ineffective last Wednesday.
Van Basten is expected to stick to the 4-3-3 formation normally employed, with Mark van Bommel as his midfield ball-winner, abetted by the experienced Phillip Cocu - who will be playing his 101st game - and Ajax's Wesley Sneijder. Van Nistelrooy has continually insisted that his unhappy finish to the domestic season at Old Trafford only made him more determined, but there is little evidence of that. Van Basten now says of his fellow striker: "Ruud will understand that if you play well you will not be substituted. He has to play a bigger role in our attack. The same goes for every player - if your contribution gets less there is a chance you will be substituted."
This is the sort of talk most supporters want to hear - are you listening, Svennis? - and it has cemented the Dutch coach's popularity. He is now the untouchable "San Marco", who cleverly announced after taking over two years ago that he was looking towards 2008, and is therefore seen to be well ahead of schedule. Freshening up the squad was one thing, but results did not suffer. Although Holland may be the team everyone wants to beat, for purely superstitious reasons, in 15 matches of Van Basten's first campaign nobody has managed it yet.
The past is orange: Hell for Shilton, heaven for Sheringham
NOV '46: ENGLAND 8 HOLLAND 2
It was just after the war, and a friendly, but it remains England's biggest win against the Dutch. On a rain-soaked pitch at Huddersfield, Tommy Lawton scored four, and it was 6-1 by half-time.
JUNE '88: ENGLAND 1 HOLLAND 3
Peter Shilton didn't enjoy his 100th cap for England in Düsseldorf as a Marco van Basten hat-trick put England out of the European Championship.
JUNE '90: ENGLAND 0 HOLLAND 0
England used Mark Wright as a sweeper in Cagliari in their second group game of the 1990 World Cup and looked impressive, none more so than Paul Gascoigne.
APRIL '93: ENGLAND 2 HOLLAND 2
England went 2-0 up after 23 minutes of this World Cup qualifier at Wembley. But Gascoigne's cheekbone was broken by Jan Wouters, and an 85th-minute equaliser earnt the Dutch a draw.
OCT '93: HOLLAND 2 ENGLAND 0
Ronald Koeman should have been sent off in Rotterdam after bringing down David Platt, but five minutes later he scored directly from a free-kick and Denis Bergkamp added a second to keep England out of USA 94.
JUNE '96: ENGLAND 4 HOLLAND 1
England's finest hour-and-a-half against Holland; in 11 second-half minutes of this European Championship group game at Wembley, Teddy Sheringham (2) and Alan Shearer added gloriously to Shearer's first-half penalty.
Overall: England P16 W5 D7 L4
Simon RedfernReuse content