Netherlands face dilemma over Bergkamp's selection

Rob Fleur says the Dutch may consider a radical change against Ireland tomorrow
Click to follow
It seems almost unthinkable, the Dutch without Dennis Bergkamp. But that is the dilemma eating away at their coach, Guus Hiddink, before tomorrow night's European Championship play-off against the Republic of Ireland at Anfield.

Bergkamp, given a new lease of life by Arsenal after two difficult years in Italy, will probably be spared the humiliation and claim his place having recovered from an injured calf.

However, such is the concern about his form for the Netherlands that the issue has clouded preparations for a game which determines who qualifies for the finals of Euro 96 in England next summer.

While Bergkamp struggled in an Internazionale side that failed to accommodate his prodigious talent, he always performed well at international level. Now, as the 26-year-old's club career begins to take off at Highbury, he cannot score for a Dutch side that considers itself fortunate to still be in with a chance of qualifying.

The doubts that haunted his time in Italy have now followed Bergkamp on to the national stage, leaving Hiddink with his biggest headache since succeeding Dick Advocaat last year. Bergkamp's performances for the Netherlands have been on a downward spiral since the World Cup in the United States, but so far he has been an ever-present in the European Championship campaign.

He is included in the squad for tomorrow night, but might Hiddink do the unthinkable and drop the self-effacing player? Maybe a clue came in the last match against Norway at home, which the Netherlands won 3-0 to finish second in Group Five.

Bergkamp, with just one goal in the qualifiers, was so ineffective that he was replaced by Youri Mulder, who promptly scored. Despite such an obvious show of dissatisfaction, the feeling is that Hiddink will name him in the starting line-up.

There can, it seems, be no half measures. According to sources close to the Dutch camp, Bergkamp, with 41 caps, is not a player to be given a place on the bench. Indeed, Hiddink is said to believe it pointless to call up someone of such calibre if he is not to play from the outset.

Nevertheless, the worries remain and the manager must figure out how to lift Bergkamp for a game in which his skill could be a decisive factor. Hiddink apparently believes the answer is to take the troubled player back to his glory days with Ajax and slot him into a familiar position.

Under this scenario, Patrick Kluivert would play up front with Bergkamp constantly lurking just behind - a relationship similar to the one he is enjoying with Ian Wright at Arsenal.

Because of suspensions, the Ajax system would also allow Hiddink to move his inspirational midfielder, Clarence Seedorf, into central defence alongside Danny Blind. Ronald de Boer would take up his usual position on the right side of midfield, with Marc Overmars and Bergkamp's Arsenal team-mate, Glenn Helder, on the wings.

The Dutch are at pains to stress the importance of this game. Their European dreams were in tatters after a 3-1 defeat by the Czech Republic in Prague and a 1-0 loss in Belarus. However, Luxembourg handed them a lifeline by upsetting the Czechs. By the time they beat Norway, the Netherlands - who have not missed a major tournament since 1988 - were beginning to look the part again.

Now, with Ajax continuing to carry all before them at club level, they are determined to maintain that improvement. Despite his doubts about Bergkamp, Hiddink is in bullish mood. "Do I consider being beaten by the Irish? No, not at all," he said, "because a country that succeeds twice to undo an elimination should never lose the qualification again."

Rob Fleur is a sports journalist with the Amsterdam-based newspaper, Het Parool