For Steve McClaren, tonight's match in Amsterdam is about as serious as a friendly can be as he struggles to restore confidence in his management. For the Dutch, it is a traditional friendly. A chance to meet up, exchange gossip, run through some routines and meet the requirements of their television contract. On Monday they only trained for 45 minutes before deciding it was too wet, and too cold, to continue.
The Netherlands went out of the World Cup before England did. Marco van Basten, their rookie coach, was outwitted by Portugal's Luiz Felipe Scolari in the battle of Nuremberg. Two of the team's leading players, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Mark van Bommel, have since fallen out with Van Basten so badly they refuse to play for him. Others are played out of position to suit his 4-3-3 formation. But Van Basten remains popular with press, public and the Dutch Football Association, who recently asked him to extend his contract to the 2010 World Cup. Van Basten turned the offer down, preferring to wait until after the 2008 European Championship finals.
That the Dutch will be at the tournament there is little doubt. Four matches into a relatively easy group they sit top with 10 points from four matches. They only managed one-goal victories against Luxembourg and Albania at home but injuries have been disruptive and Van Basten has continued to integrate young talent.
The only reason the Dutch are taking more than a passing interest in tonight is the return of Clarence Seedorf. The Milan midfielder has been recalled to the squad for the first time under Van Basten, who took over after Euro 2004. Seedorf was ignored on the premise that he infuriated Van Basten's predecessors, Guus Hiddink, Frank Rijkaard, Louis van Gaal, and Dick Advocaat. So, reasoned Van Basten, why bother trying to work with a player who always seemed to prefer his own way to the coach's instructions.
A week ago Seedorf begged for another chance, offering to play wherever Van Basten wanted him to. But the coach omitted him once more. Then Wesley Sneijder, the Ajax midfielder, pulled out with an injury and, late on Sunday night, Van Basten picked up the phone. The question now is whether this will be the 30-year-old Seedorf's 78th and last cap, or the beginning of a new, more fruitful, international career.
Van Nistelrooy and Van Bommel will not be coming back, having turned down call-ups earlier this season, piqued at initially being omitted. In a bizarre twist they have asked to play, as over-age players, in the Dutch Olympic team should it qualify for the Beijing Olympics. This squad is coached, as are the Dutch Under-21s, by Foppe de Haan, the long-time coach of Heerenveen, where he discovered both Van Nistelrooy and his replacement in Oranje, Klaas Jan Huntelaar. The Dutch will make Beijing if their Under-21 team reach the semi-finals in next summer's eight-team European Under-21 Championships, to be staged in the Netherlands.
The Dutch are reigning champions at this level, having won last summer's tournament under the captaincy of Stijn Schaars. The AZ Alkmaar midfielder is one of the new wave of young players being brought into the Dutch team by Van Basten. He is expected to be on the bench tonight but the goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg, full-back Urby Emanuelson, and their Ajax team-mate Huntelaar, should start - the latter atcentre-forward, with Liverpool's Dirk Kuyt on the right wing.
Schaars will be one of a raft of half-time substitutions because the weekend's big match, Ajax (second in the league) v Twente Enschede (fourth), is deemed more important than Netherlands v England.
Going Dutch: A complete record
Jun 90: Eng 0 Neth 0
World Cup Qualifiers
Apr 93: Eng 2 Neth 2
Oct 93: Neth 2 Eng 0
Jun 88: Neth 3Eng 1
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May 1935: Neth 0 Eng 1
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Jan 70: Eng 0 Neth 0
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Aug 01: Eng 0 Neth 2
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