Dutch draw on history in title search

The greatest goal to ever clinch a European Championship was scored by Holland. It is not often you can make a statement like this in the world of sport and not leave yourself wide open to be shouted down by a barrage of different opinions. But in this particular case, you just don’t come across many who feel they need to argue.

Marco van Basten’s celebrated strike in 1988, when he struck an astounding volley from an audaciously tight angle, remains one of the most beautiful ways a trophy was ever won. The coach, Rinus Michels, was so bowled over he almost wept there and then as van Basten’s work of art soared into the net.

It is a moment that is rightly enshrined in Dutch football folklore. Finals and semifinals are not uncommon in their history, but 1988 was the only time they have declared themselves champions. Holland’s current leader of the attack, Robin van Persie, sums up the feelings of many: “That team has always been, and still is, the one that I look up to.”

In the bid for the current generation to emulate that masterful team of 1988, the one thing Holland have going for them today is an enviable array of goalscorers. It’s easy to suggest that any of them individually are quite up to van Basten’s standards. But collectively, they have a lot of weapons in the squad. Their two main forwards, van Persie and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, are in such phenomenal form it seems amazing that the coach, Bert van Marwijk, is not tempted to play them both up front together.

Van Persie has 43 goals in 54 games, but Huntelaar is even more prolific with 44 goals from 48 games. Seeing how Holland seldom even think about deviating from their favored 4-2-3-1 formation, with a lone striker, van Persie is expected to get the nod. But it is a sign of their potential that not many other countries are in the position of leaving a predator in hot form on the bench or shunting him out wide. Nice problem to have.

Then there are all the threats that come from midfield, such as Arjen Robben (18 goals this season) and Rafael van der Vaart (13). Wesley Sneijder and Ibrahim Afellay have both spent long periods out injured during their recent club campaigns, but are also more than capable of conjuring up some scoring magic.

If there appears to be some extra emphasis on van Persie, it is one that he is profoundly aware of. At the last World Cup, although he was part of a team that made it to the final, he personally did not perform anywhere near his best. He knows it. He played in all seven matches but scored just once, and was just not in the groove.

He went into that tournament on the back of one of the many injuries that has hampered his career for years at Arsenal. Notably, his fitness is not an issue this time on the back of a season where he did not miss a single league game. It was always his idea to, as he describes it, “master every aspect of the game.” His body has at last allowed him to improve on so many levels in the past year. He reckons he has never felt so fit.

Experience, he says, has changed him. "I used to get worked up about big tournaments, but not anymore,” he explains. "Now it comes down to the big moments where I have to decide big games. For me, the next big moment is when I face Denmark in Ukraine.”

There has not been a huge amount of change in the Dutch squad since they reached the World Cup final two years ago, an achievement that feels bittersweet in retrospect as not only did they lose out, they were also criticized for an uncharacteristically negative and over-physical approach.

Some questioned whether Holland had betrayed their roots somewhat. Van Marwijk is a pragmatist, though, and he has set up a strategy to try to get the best out of the players at his disposal. Although they have had their confidence pricked by friendly defeats to Germany and Bulgaria, they go into the tournament with an excellent competitive record. They were the continent’s top scorers in qualification.

The defense is not their strongest area, although they have a goalkeeper who has enhanced his reputation over an excellent season with Newcastle in Tim Krul.

It is a tough group, with Denmark, Germany and Portugal on the horizon, but van Marwijk is trying to look on the bright side. At least his team should be absolutely focused from the word go.