By Chris McDonald
Bert van Marwijk’s fightin’ Dutch will be looking to resurrect their reputation for aesthetics after delivering a swift Nigel de Jong-sized boot to the chest of the beautiful game at South Africa 2010. The Euro 88 winners combine a wonderful array of attacking riches with an average-at-best defence, but are rightly among the tournament favourites.
Player Match Of The Day pundits have heard of: Robin van Persie
From enfant terrible to talented prema-crock to best striker in England, the man with the chocolate leg has had as good a 2011-12 as playing for Arsenal will allow. So much so that he’s now considered the figure most likely to lead any Dutch charge for glory this summer rather than the physically wilting Wesley Sneijder. The question for Van Marwijk is whether to play Van Persie at the expense of, wide of or in behind the equally in-form Klaas-Jan Huntelaar.
Player Match Of The Day pundits won’t have heard of (but should have): Kevin Strootman
Much of the debate surrounding the Dutch first XI is whether to partner captain Mark van Bommel (Van Marwijk’s son-in-law, no less) with the purely destructive De Jong or the technical but lightweight Rafael van der Vaart. A happy medium might lie in the form of PSV midfielder Strootman. The 22-year-old nominally plays as a deep-lying midfielder, but has the ability to move possession quickly and get forward to link up attacks.
Liverpool connection: Put your hands up for Dirk Kuyt! It will take some time to get used to the noodle-haired forward being referred to as ‘former Liverpool player Dirk Kuyt’, but all sensible-minded Reds will be willing Dirk on to success this summer. Luuk de Jong, heavily linked under Kenny Dalglish, is also in the squad, as is Brendan Rodgers’ old keeper, Michel Vorm.
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Gary Lineker once described football as a game where “22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end the Germans always win”. Not so any more: World Cup runners-up in 2002; Euro runners-up in 2008; third at World Cups 2006 and 2010. But football’s new bridesmaids have their most talented squad since 1990 and look a long-term threat to Spain’s recent dominance.
Player Match Of The Day pundits have heard of: Miroslav Klose
The man who rose to international prominence in 2002 by scoring loads of headers against a Saudi Arabia defence that refused to jump has had something of an Indian summer at Lazio and should get the nod ahead of ultimate flat-track bully/massive klutz Mario Gomez. Expect a mention for Arsenal-bound Lukas Podolski, who will be adding his brand of running loads and kicking the ball really hard to new club-mate Per Mertesacker’s not running at all because he’s really tall.
Player Match Of The Day pundits won’t have heard of (but should have): Mario Gotze
The brightest talent to emerge from Germany since Mesut Ozil has it all: he’s quick, can dribble, can pass, can finish and will cost any prospective buyer a lot of money indeed. However, the likes of Gotze and his soon-to-be-team-mate Marco Reus will probably start the tournament on the bench, with coach Joachim Low expected to stick with Podolski, Ozil and Thomas Muller behind the striker.
Liverpool connection: Third-choice goalkeeper Ron-Robert Zieler was a trainee at Manchester United before leaving them for current club Hannover 96 in 2010. His greatest achievement at United was helping their reserves to the Lancashire Senior Cup in 2008, beating Liverpool reserves 3-2.
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Like the Dutch, Portugal will be looking to restore their reputation for attractive football after Carlos Queiroz attempted to Hodgson them through World Cup 2010. As ever, the Portuguese are chock with wingers aplenty and no decent strikers, but despite lacking a true No10 heir to Manuel Rui Costa and Deco, Joao Moutinho and a rehabilitated Hugo Viana (ex-Newcastle) are astute midfield creators.
Player Match Of The Day pundits have heard of: Cristiano Ronaldo
He might have abandoned The Greatest League In The World™, but Ronaldo has consoled himself with wresting La Liga from The Greatest Team In The World™ and being obscenely awesome every week since his move to Real Madrid. He’s still not likeable in the slightest but averaging over a goal a game is frankly ridiculous. That said, anyone caught referring to him as ‘CR7’ deserves a shoeing. And then a beating. Then shooting.
Player Match Of The Day pundits won’t have heard of (but should have): Joao Moutinho
I would have said Ricardo Quaresma, but I think I might like him a little less than Ronaldo, so the Porto man gets the nod. He’s been a Portugal regular since 2005, but the midfielder really came into his own at club level following his move north from boyhood club Sporting, where under Andre Villas-Boas he helped pull the strings as Porto crushed all-comers.
Liverpool connection: The extent of Raul Meireles’ influence in his brief time at Anfield has divided opinion, but he’s an important player for his country. Striker Helder Postiga was a flop at Spurs, but like so many otherwise-unremarkable players, he chose to score his only league goal in England in a 2-1 over Liverpool.
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The Danes were excellent in qualifying, finishing above Portugal having only lost a single game (away to the Portuguese). It is their bad fortune, then, to be drawn in the Group Of Death™. This team is far away from the great Danish side of the 1980s, or even the mediocre one that won Euro 92, but they’d have been a decent bet to progress if only fate hadn’t conspired to pit them against two of the best teams in the tournament.
Player Match Of The Day pundits have heard of: Nicklas Bendtner
The cocky striker isn’t nearly as bad as people like to portray him, but ultimately he does come across as a bargain-bin version of Zlatan Ibrahimovic in style and attitude. Still, he is the man the Danes will be relying on to fire them through this group. Which is why they probably won’t.
Player Match Of The Day pundits won’t have heard of (but should have): Christian Eriksen
The Ajax prodigy looks to be more than just a Football Manager player’s wank fantasy. If he can cope with the pressure of being ‘the new Michael Laudrup’, then the 20-year-old attacking midfielder has the trickery and guile to become one of the best in Europe.
Liverpool connection: The physically fragile Daniel Agger is likely to partner the mentally fragile Simon Kjaer – who, incidentally, is a Liverpool fan – at the back. Reds will mostly be hoping that Agger returns back to Merseyside in one piece. Oh, and how can we forget Christian Poulsen? No, literally, how can we forget Christian Poulsen?