Time for talented individuals to start achieving

CHAMPIONSHIP COUNTDOWN: No 10 Netherlands
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The Independent Online
Ruud Gullit's performance as a pundit will demonstrate one of Dutch football's greatest strengths, the intelligence and tactical awareness of their players. That he will be doing this from a television studio underlines that this strength is also a weakness.

While Gullit would not necessarily be in the current Dutch side he certainly left it too early, just as Johan Cruyff did before him. Sometimes it is possible for players to know too much. As Bobby Robson said when coaching PSV Eindhoven: "When you take off an English player he sits on the bench. When you take off a Dutch player he wants to argue about it."

This belief that the player knows more than the coach has left several Dutch managers frustrated as the team under-achieved. The latest, Guus Hiddink, did not take long to catch the mood as his team lost their first two matches, the second after the Ajax players had refused to play, citing fixture congestion.

With the row over, Hiddink then played seven of them in a vital qualifying match in Prague three days after Ajax had won the European Cup. It was too soon, and the Netherlands were left to scramble into the finals through a play-off.

Their performance at Anfield against the Republic of Ireland led many people to tip them as potential champions. However, that verdict did not take into account the decline of the Irish team, nor consequent problems. The biggest of these is on the wings, an area so crucial to the shape of the side.

Marc Overmars is injured and there is no one quite like him. With Hiddink rejecting the English-based trio of Glenn Helder, Regi Blinker and Bryan Roy, the wings will be filled by two from Gaston Taument, Peter Hoekstra and Ronald de Boer.

The latter two are among nine Ajax players in the squad. For all their quality, it is a perilous dependence given the long season and bitter conclusion Ajax have suffered.

On the credit side is the availability of Patrick Kluivert and Jordi Cruyff. Kluivert escaped a custodial sentence for his part in a fatal road accident while Jordi chose to play for the land of his father rather than the land of his upbringing.

Jordi will have to settle for a place in the squad rather than the team, as Dennis Bergkamp is earmarked to play as the split striker behind Kluivert. Behind them is a midfield bulging with versatility and drive. Edgar Davids and Clarence Seedorf are capable of playing a number of roles, while Aron Winter often outshone Paul Gascoigne at Lazio.

The defence is Ajax's, and they do not give many goals away. At its heart is Danny Blind, playing his last round of internationals and seeking to erase the pain of this year's European Cup defeat. He is suspended for the opening game against Scotland.

The Netherlands have scored more goals and won more games than any team in the championship's history, but they have won the event only once, in 1988. They were favourites when they went out on penalties at the semi- final stage four years later. Relative failure at the 1990 and 1994 World Cups means the current team has grown up in the shadow of 1988.

With the Bosman ruling perhaps placing Ajax at a crossroads, now is the time for the present generation to make their mark - if they have the energy and the will.

Player to watch

Edgar Davids

(Ajax)

Not the most glamourous player in the side but probably the most effective - as Milan recognised by securing him for next season. The epitome of Dutch footballing principles, the 23-year-old appears able to play anywhere and often does. The Netherlands, like Ajax, have chosen to play him on the left of midfield, but that is nominal. Surinam-born, he came through the youth system at Ajax, where he was nicknamed "Pit Bull".

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