Van Basten's revolution rekindles old Dutch magic

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The Independent Football

It's the changing of the seasons here, the weather has closed in and the holidaymakers have given way to conferences, business exhibitions - and footballers. Ajax and the Dutch national team use the beach resort as their base, staying at the Grand Hotel Huister Duin.

The House on the Dunes. The name itself is apt as so many of the Netherlands' footballing hopes have been so grand, yet built on the weakest of foundations. And even as Marco van Basten, the national coach, sipped his coffee in the hotel foyer this week, he felt unable to offer a reason as to why he has been so successful in the year-and-a-half since he took over.

"That's something I keep asking myself," Van Basten said of his record of 11 wins, five draws and no defeats. "I don't know the reason why, I really don't. We are just doing our best, trying to work well." It may be a charming response but it's also, as anyone aware of his meticulous preparations will testify, disingenuous.

However, even the normally ultra-rational Dutch have convinced themselves that with the return of the three-times European Footballer of the Year, the striker whose glorious career was cut short by an ankle injury at 28, has come something not just talismanic but also a force of nature.

Van Basten has certainly brought about a revolution following the dour, depressing regime of Dick Advocaat and the traditional in-fighting and ego-baiting that have troubled the Dutch for years. Indeed he is sometimes seen simply playing keepy-uppy with his assistants while the squad trains.

There is, seasoned observers say, an honesty, humour and freshness around the squad now. And an openness. It has helped that not only has Van Basten his own brilliant playing career to carry him - and there is certainly an aura - but that there is no baggage either. After all this is someone who, now just into his 40s, spent the best part of a decade after his premature retirement playing golf.

Van Basten swept out the old guard, such as Patrick Kluivert and Clarence Seedorf. They were big names. But not as big as Van Basten. It was a deliberate policy, he wanted to mould a team, not just a collection of individuals. Reputation counted for nothing. It was form that mattered. Ruud van Nistelrooy, one of those to survive, noted that "compromise" was not a word in the new coach's dictionary.

The man himself tells it differently. "At the beginning we had problems with players, older players, who stopped playing, and we needed new players," he said. "Some of the young players we brought in were good enough, some weren't. It just happened."

Those who know him claim that this is just what he says in public. Seventeen players have been given debuts, three more may make their first appearances tonight against Italy.

Van Basten is also keen to encourage young Dutch players not to move abroad and is more likely to pick from AZ Alkmaar or RKC Waalwiijk even if, in saying that, his great hope lies in the Premiership-based pair of Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie.

There is an excitement about tonight's friendly, given an added edge by the fact that Van Basten has been lined up as Milan's next coach - to succeed Carlo Ancelotti next summer - with the club president Silvio Berlusconi stating the Dutchman will take over. Whether he likes it or not. (Van Basten insists he will stay with the Oranje).

Marcello Lippi, Italy's coach, is certain that the Dutch will be among the leading candidates in Germany. "Holland is one of the most in-form sides at the moment, one of the favourites for the 2006 World Cup, alongside Brazil and Argentina," the 57-year-old said.

It is a testament to the solidity of Van Basten's achievements that he has received such an endorsement from so experienced an opponent.

Netherlands (probable) (4-3-3): Van der Sar (Manchester United); Kromkamp (Villarreal), Vlaar, Mathijsen (both AZ Alkmaar), Van Bronckhorst (Barcelona); Landzaat (AZ Alkmaar), Van der Vaart (Hamburg), Cocu (PSV Eindhoven); Cairo (Hertha Berlin), Kuijt (Feyenoord), Babel (Ajax).

Italy (probable) (4-3-3): Abbiati (Juventus); Zaccardo (Palermo), Nesta (Milan), Cannavaro (Juventus), Grosso (Palermo); Camoranesi (Juventus), Pirlo, Gattuso (both Milan); Gilardino (Milan), Toni (Fiorentina), Del Piero (Juventus).

Referee: V Ivanov (Russia).