Football: Dutch mission impossible

2017: Robben, now the Dutch captain, riding a challenge from Sergei Balanovich during their 3-1 World Cup 2018 qualifier win in Belarus. World Cup semi-finalists in 2014, both the Netherlands and Argentina are facing the shock prospect of failing to
2017: Robben, now the Dutch captain, riding a challenge from Sergei Balanovich during their 3-1 World Cup 2018 qualifier win in Belarus. World Cup semi-finalists in 2014, both the Netherlands and Argentina are facing the shock prospect of failing to qualify for Russia. PHOTO: EPA–EFE
2014: Arjen Robben being tackled by Argentina midfielder Javier Mascherano during their World Cup 2014 semi-final in Sao Paulo on July 9. The Netherlands went on to lose 2-4 in the penalty shoot-out after the match ended 0-0 after extra time.
2014: Arjen Robben being tackled by Argentina midfielder Javier Mascherano during their World Cup 2014 semi-final in Sao Paulo on July 9. The Netherlands went on to lose 2-4 in the penalty shoot-out after the match ended 0-0 after extra time. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Fallen giants to miss out on World Cup unless they beat Sweden and erase a 12-goal gap

AMSTERDAM • Last week, Netherlands manager Dick Advocaat scoffed when a reporter asked what would happen if Group A rivals Sweden thrashed Luxembourg 8-0.

On Saturday, Sweden won their World Cup qualifier by that exact scoreline, leaving Advocaat to eat his words. More significantly, the Oranje were that much closer to swallowing the bitter pill of missing a second straight major tournament following their failure to qualify for the Euro 2016 Finals.

The three-time World Cup runners-up kept alive their slender hopes of going to Russia with a 3-1 victory over Belarus on Saturday. But the result leaves them on 16 points from nine matches, three behind second-placed Sweden, who they face in Amsterdam tomorrow.

The Dutch will need to make up a 12-goal deficit on the Swedes if they are to make the play-offs. Netherlands captain Arjen Robben has already given up hope.

"We couldn't believe it was that much," he told Dutch TV, referring to Sweden's win, which was over by the time the Netherlands took to the field in Borisov, where Robben scored one goal and made another.

"After the result in Sweden, we could not do much more than come out with our chests out. But to win 8-0 in Belarus was never going to be realistic. And 7-0 at home against Sweden, that's not going to happen either.

HERCULEAN TASK

We must keep believing until the last minute, but I better say what everyone is thinking. It is not realistic to think we can beat Sweden with a big score. People had best leave their calculators at home.

ARJEN ROBBEN, Netherlands captain, waves the white flag given the odds stacked against his side in order to reach Russia 2018.

"We must keep believing until the last minute, but I better say what everyone is thinking. It is not realistic to think we can beat Sweden with a big score. People had best leave their calculators at home."

Perhaps the Dutch could find solace - instead of irony - in Advocaat's words last week.

"They (Sweden) won't win 8-0. What a stupid question. I don't believe that," the 70-year-old told a reporter, insisting that it would be impossible for the Swedes to humiliate Luxembourg.

Sportsmen have made a mockery of the impossible in the history of sport. Yet the Netherlands face a truly uphill task.

Sweden could yet finish top of the group and qualify automatically at France's expense if they win and Les Bleus falter at home to Belarus.

Advocaat put on a brave front on Saturday but admitted the Dutch only have themselves to blame.

"In hindsight, you can perhaps say what we could have done better during this qualifying campaign," he told Dutch broadcaster NOS.

"If you know that an opponent have lost 8-0, you do not expect it especially as the same team drew with France a few weeks ago.

"We must be angry with ourselves not with Luxembourg. It's not over, we still have a game to play on Tuesday."

There are not many Dutch believers. On the eve of the Belarus clash, Martin Jol told the Daily Mail of the Oranje's chances: "For this tournament, it is finished."

The former Ajax and Tottenham Hotspur manager was ruthless in his assessment of their fall from "Total Football" to total joke.

"We were third in the last World Cup but we could all see the quality was not as good as before," the 61-year-old told the Daily Mail.

"Louis van Gaal started to change the Dutch way, with five at the back. It was more like we played for results. We lost identity. Our identity was always good organisation and offensive style. Now, if we do that, we concede too many goals.

"So we went away from that under van Gaal. And under Danny Blind, the same, because he was his pupil - and we couldn't qualify for the Euros (in 2016).

"In Holland, our philosophy was to be different. Now we want to be like everybody else - and they are bigger than us."

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 09, 2017, with the headline 'Dutch mission impossible'. Print Edition | Subscribe