Patched-up Dutch have touch of class

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The Independent Football

The World Cup makes its first visit into the old East Germany tomorrow with Leipzig hosting a contest between one of the competition's nearly teams and a sort-of debutant. This will be the first and only tournament contested by Serbia & Montenegro. Montenegrorecently voted to secede, and will enter the next tournament as an independent nation. Both were formerly part of Yugoslavia whose last World Cup tie was a defeat to the Netherlands, tomorrow's opponents, at France '98.

The Dutch, meanwhile, were last seen on the global stage later that tournament, in despair on the turf of Marseilles' Stade Velodrome. They had lost a penalty shoot-out to Brazil after thoroughly outplaying the holders. They also failed at the 12-yard firing range at Euro '96 and Euro 2000 but, having exorcised that ghost with a shoot-out success against the Swedes in Euro 2004, they now seek to lay the memory of 1974 when they lit up the World Cup but lost the final to West Germany. However, merely escaping this section (Ivory Coast and Argentina are also in Group C) will be an achievement for either side.

A year ago the Dutch would have been favourites to emerge. They were Europe's form team. A home defeat to Italy dented their confidence and they go into this afternoon's match with mixed form. They are also carrying a few bruises after a warm-up match against Australia which, said Marco Van Basten, left the dressing room looking like a set from MASH.

Van Basten summoned his stand-by players but the injured quintet - Rafael van der Vaart, Kew Jaliens, Gio van Bronckhorst, Phillip Cocu and Wesley Sneijder - have all improved and most will be available. Sneijder, who was carried off with an ankle injury said: "I really thought that the World Cup was over for me but now I feel a lot better."

Cocu, and van Bronckhorst, together with the Manchester United pair Ruud van Nistelrooy and Edwin van der Sar, are key players with the experience to settle Van Basten's young team. "We have a group of young players but they are very mature in playing the game we want to," said Van der Sar.

Van Basten broke the old Ajax-PSV Eindhoven-Feyenoord cartel which often caused internal divisions, players remaining allied to their old clubs even when they were playing elsewhere in Europe. AZ Alkmaar, a team which rarely provided internationals under previous regimes, have five players in the squad, more than any of the big three.

The core players, however, play outside the Eredivisie. As well as the familiar faces, the quartet mentioned above and Arjen Robben and Mark van Bommel, look for Hamburg's Khalid Boulahrouz, a tight marker who has sharpened his act since Martin Jol, then his coach at RKC Waalwijk, said his fitness was "equal to a policeman's". He was a key component of a defence which conceded only three goals in qualifying.

This was two more than Serbia & Montenegro conceded but they will be without Manchester United's Nemanja Vidic, who is suspended. Goran Gavrancic, of Dynamo Kiev, is likely to deputise. In attack, Mateja Kezman, hapless at Chelsea but impressive both in qualifying and with Atletico Madrid this season, should be fit despite missing the final warm-up game.

One as yet unanswered question centres on the impact on team spirit the "nepotism" row has had. After the qualification victory over Bosnia-Herzegovina which put Serbia into the finals, 50,000 fans packed the streets of Belgrade chanting: "Ilija for president" in honour of coach Ilija Petkovic.

He is less popular now after picking his son, Dusan, when one of the original 23-man squad pulled out. Dusan eventually withdrew but his father was unable, under Fifa regulations, to replace him.