The Netherlands have played the most joyful football of Euro 2008; yesterday they were confronted with a sadness that renders all that talk of glory and trophies redundant. Khalid Boulahrouz's wife, Sabia, who was in Switzerland supporting her husband, gave birth, prematurely, to a daughter who died. The player has said he is available for tonight's quarter-final against Russia.
Boulahrouz was a full-back who deputised at centre-half without much success in either position during his time at Chelsea in the 2006-07 season but he has become emblematic of the new spirit within Marco van Basten's national squad. He insisted that he was in a fit state to play and that his wife supported his decision. The sadness that the couple have gone through has touched the players and the Dutch fans as well, making their progress at Euro 2008 just that little bit more poignant.
A group of the Dutch players, concerned that Boulahrouz and his wife were suffering away from home, came to visit them in hospital to offer their support. Van Basten came to see them, too. As well as the loss the couple have suffered, the Dutch public have been struck by the togetherness of a national squad which has, in previous tournaments, been anything but united. Tonight they face Guus Hiddink's Russia in Basle with a greater esprit de corps than any of their predecessors.
The pressure of facing Hiddink, who led the Netherlands to the 1998 World Cup semi-finals and repeated the feat four years later with South Korea, is not lost on the Dutch and there were some feisty exchanges at his press conference yesterday. However, the Netherlands go into tonight's game with a much greater sense of unity than was achieved in 1998, when Hiddink sent Edgar Davids home after a spectacular public fall-out. Van Basten has achieved what many thought was impossible.
True, the football is fantastic and any international manager who can afford to start games with Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie on the substitutes' bench is blessed indeed, but Van Basten is reaping the benefits of decisions he made before the tournament. Clarence Seedorf was not content with a substitute's role, so he was left behind. Mark van Bommel, who has never seen eye-to-eye with Van Basten, was also judged to be surplus to requirements.
Van Basten and Hiddink are both expected to start with their usual first-choice line-ups – in the Netherlands' case that is the team that started their second group game, the 4-1 win against France. Russia should be unchanged from the team that began the 2-0 win over Sweden, their last group fixture.
The Russia coach found himself in conflict with Dutch reporters yesterday when it was put to him that coaching a team against his native country was "traitorous". Hiddink responded by sarcastically suggesting that he was his country's "biggest traitor" just because he would sing the Russian national anthem tonight.
"The only thing that worries me is that the Dutch team will have had five days more rest than us," Hiddink said. "That is not insignificant. But can we beat them? Why not? I am really blown away by the rapid progress that the team has made, given it has been put together only recently.
"My players are impressive in their capacity to listen and to understand. They also possess a lot of qualities in terms of speed and creativity."
Netherlands (probable , 4-2-3-1): Van der Sar (Manchester United); Boulahrouz (Hamburg), Ooijer (Blackburn), Mathijsen (Hamburg), Van Bronckhorst (Feyenoord); De Jong (Hamburg), Engelaar (Twente); Kuyt (Liverpool) Van der Vaart (Hamburg), Sneijder (Real Madrid); Van Nistelrooy (Real Madrid).
Russia (probable, 4-1-3-1-1): Akinfeev (CSKA Moscow); Anyukov (Zenit St Petersburg), Kolodin (Dynamo Moscow), Ignashevich (CSKA Moscow), Zhirkov (CSKA Moscow); Semak (Rubin Kazan); Zyryanov (Zenit St Petersburg), Semshov (Dynamo Moscow), Bilyaletdinov (Locomotiv Moscow); Arshavin (Zenit St Petersburg); Pavlyuchenko (Spartak Moscow).
Referee: L Michel (Slovakia).
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