Talismanic strikers hold key for Dutch and Swedes

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The Independent Online

There is certainly no danger of familiarity breeding contempt when Sweden face the Netherlands in the Algarve this evening. Despite both countries being regular qualifiers for international tournaments they have not played each other in a competitive game for 30 years and their last match was a friendly 21 years ago.

There is certainly no danger of familiarity breeding contempt when Sweden face the Netherlands in the Algarve this evening. Despite both countries being regular qualifiers for international tournaments they have not played each other in a competitive game for 30 years and their last match was a friendly 21 years ago.

Tonight's Euro 2004 quarter-final in Faro is decidedly meaningful, by contrast, especially as it pits two of Europe's most prolific strikers against each other, in Henrik Larsson and Ruud van Nistelrooy, both of whom are thriving for very different reasons.

The former had to be talked out of international retirement to help a goal-shy Swedish team. Larsson felt he had done his bit for his country.

He came to prominence in the World Cup 10 years ago, saving them from defeat in a quarter-final against Romania, and played in two other championships. Earlier this year the ex-Celtic forward, 32, had envisaged a quiet summer, free from football. Instead he is having some fun in the Portuguese sun with three goals to his name.

For Van Nistelrooy, tournament football has come late. Now aged 27, this is his first taste of a championship. A cruciate knee ligament injury four years ago postponed his move to Manchester United and wrecked his chances of a place in the squad when his country co-hosted Euro 2000. Although he returned to full fitness he was then part of the Dutch team that was squeezed out by the Republic of Ireland in qualification for the 2002 World Cup.

While Larsson has been there at this level, Van Nistelrooy wore a haunted look last Saturday that seemed to suggest he would be heading for the ranks of great club players who never made a serious impact when it came to a major football tournament.

A week ago the Netherlands had lost to the Czech Republic after leading 2-0, and qualification for the last eight was suddenly out of their hands.

It was a face that realised he was staring down the barrel of an early exit from what could be his only championship finals. After all, his country's greatest player, Johan Cruyff, played in only one World Cup. But a win and two more goals against Latvia, leading to this tie, have given Van Nistelrooy renewed hope.

Now with four goals to his name he said: "This is definitely the best period I've had playing for the Netherlands. I hope it continues," but he is not taking tonight's opponents lightly. He added: "For me Sweden are playing the best football in the whole tournament. Larsson's their key man with all his experience."

One man who knows all about that is Dick Advocaat, the Dutch manager. While at Rangers, nullifying Larsson's threat in four league games and various cup matches each season was his prime concern.

Now he has to do it all over again. "I had four and a half years at Rangers and I know what we're up against in Larsson," said Advocaat. "He is a world-class goalscorer who is still doing his job. He's one of the key players for Sweden."

Van Nistelrooy may have praised Sweden but only a last-minute equaliser against Denmark saw them through ahead of Italy. They got off to a flying start against Bulgaria but have stuttered since, also only equalising late on against the Azzurri.

Their captain, Olof Mellberg, has picked up on this pattern and is anxious not to let it happen again. If they let the Dutch repeat the start they managed against the Czechs then their chances of reaching a second ever European Championship semi-final, having got that far when they hosted Euro 92, will almost certainly have gone.

The Aston Villa defender said: "We've spoken a lot about getting good starts and their importance but for some reason we're not getting them."

For the Netherlands the reverse was painfully true against the Czechs but having survived they are looking at the possibility of a fourth semi-final in five European tournaments. In the hardest quarter-final to predict, they must hope that sort of familiarity with success will only breed fear amongst the Swedes in the game tonight.

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