On the eve of the rematch of the 2010 World Cup final between the Netherlands and Spain, the Dutch were playing down any talk of seeking revenge for the agonizing 1-0 defeat in Johannesburg four years ago.
”It’s history. It doesn’t matter any longer,” winger Arjen Robben said Thursday, a day before the two teams’ World Cup Group B opener at the Arena Fonte Nova in Salvador. ”I don’t believe in revenge – 2010 was a final, this is a group match. You can’t compare it. "
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In a possible indication of the way the Netherlands will play on Friday, coach Louis van Gaal defended the tough tackling four years ago that earned eight players a yellow card and one a sending off as the Dutch lost their third World Cup final.
”Physicality is part of the game of football,” Van Gaal said. ”Four years ago the Dutch team didn’t go over the top.”
Van Gaal’s team in Brazil, a mixture of youngsters and a handful of veterans of the South Africa campaign, has been physical in training, too, with Nigel de Jong and Bruno Martins Indi felling forwards like Robben and Wesley Sneijder.
The hard work and hard tackling is a way of overcoming the quality deficit the Netherlands has compared to Spain.
This Dutch team is widely perceived as weaker than the one that reached the 2010 final. Van Gaal has totally rebuilt his defense and key midfielder Kevin Strootman is missing the tournament as he recovers from knee surgery.
”We will do everything we can to be the surprise of the tournament,” Van Gaal said.
The 62-year-old Dutchman, long a champion of attractive attacking football, has become more pragmatic as he plots to spring that surprise in his first World Cup. He has ditched the traditional 4-3-3 attacking system beloved of the Dutch and instead will play a five-man defense to counter Spain’s quick-passing style and hope to score on the counter.
”What is very important is that when the opponent has possession we need to be compact,” he said, adding that the Dutch have to ”bypass stations” when they have the ball – hinting at a long-ball game unfamiliar to Dutch fans.
After their opener, both teams have to play Chile and Australia in Group B.
The future Manchester United coach, who once led Barcelona, is clearly a fan of his opponent on Friday.
”I think Spanish football is maybe the best in the world because it combines skill, tactics and physicality,” he said.
The feeling is mutual for Spain star Xavi Hernandez.
”I have great memories of him. He is one of the most professional coaches I ever had,” the veteran midfielder said. ”I have a special fondness for him. He always had 100 percent confidence in my abilities.”