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Netherlands need to add old magic to new pragmatism to beat Brazil

Solid both on and off the pitch, the Netherlands team is showing an uncharacteristically united front at the 2010 World Cup. The Dutch will need all their new team spirit and a little of the old magic to beat Brazil.

Netherlands' Wesley Sneijder, center, celebrates with teammates after scoring during the World Cup group E soccer match between the Netherlands and Japan at the stadium in Durban, South Africa, Saturday, June 19, 2010.

The new Dutch team spirit faces its biggest test against Brazil

One of the great conundrums in World Cup history is why the Netherlands, a nation that consistently churns out teams full of talent and enterprise, tend to unravel when the ultimate prize is within their grasp.

Since the luminous teams built around the likes of Johan Cruyff, Johnny Rep, Johan Neeskens and Ruud Krol strolled into the 1974 and 1978 finals - only to be denied by West Germany and Argentina respectively - Het Oranje have been known as much for in-fighting, indiscipline, and implosion as for their silky skills.

Even when results are going their way, the Dutch have seemed to be hell-bent on self-destruction, sabotaging their campaigns at the crucial moment. No other team has been so consistent in snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

With such history and precedence, it may seem prudent to view the prospects of the 2010 team warily. But while nothing can be taken for granted on or off the pitch when it comes to the Dutch at the World Cup, there are a number of subtle differences in the current side to suggest that even if Holland don't win the title this year, they will go out fighting - and not with themselves.

There is a harmony in Bert van Marwijk's squad both on the field and off it which suggests that this is a relaxed team of players comfortable with each other and happy in an atmosphere of trust. Previous camps have been split by feuds and cliques but van Marwijk has managed to eradicate any animosity and promote a spirit of real togetherness.

Team spirit takes precedence over warring egos

Dirk Kuyt and Wesley Sneijder celebrate

The 2010 Dutch team spirit is a world away from the poisonous atmospheres at previous World Cups

Of course, this is Holland and it wouldn't be a Dutch team without some friction. Wesley Sneijder and Robin van Persie quite famously don't get along and have been involved in a petty spat for months over, among other things, who should take free-kicks, But at this tournament they appear to have put the worst of their personal problems aside.

In fact the Inter Milan playmaker an Arsenal striker have made a point of congratulating each other on their successes and have applauded each others efforts in every match in South Africa - a sure sign that that the coach has had a huge influence in keeping the players' eyes fixed on the bigger picture.

For players to do this, they have to trust the coach and buy into his tactics. So far, van Marwijk has things spot-on and the team's confidence stems from that. The Dutch are unbeaten, conceding only two goals - both penalties - in their four games thus far, and while they have yet to show the flair that most expect from a Holland side, they are producing exactly what the coach wants: wins.

Some fans back home, of course expect more from a Dutch side, and have taken potshots at van Marwijk after the team's rather workaday performances. But while it hasn't been the Totaalvoetbal of the past, the Dutch have shown they haven't lost their mastery of controlling possession and denying their opponents space while finishing in style when it counts.

Hard-working Dutch favor industry over flair

Slovakia's Marek Hamsik, left, is challenged by Netherlands' Mark van Bommel

Mark van Bommel epitomizes the fighting spirit which has made the Netherlands so hard to beat

This isn't a team of fancy flicks, feints and flamboyance. This is a Dutch team set up to win through will and effort. They may not play their way through teams with the panache that Cruyff and his contemporaries did but they are solid defensively, well-organized in midfield and penetrative in attack.

The other outstanding factor is how hard they work. Players such as Mark van Bommel, Dirk Kuyt, Sneijder and the now fit Arjen Robben run tirelessly with the ball and without, both when pressing the advantage or fighting for possession.

It's fascinating that the Dutch face Brazil in Friday's first quarter-final. Carlos Dunga's side have also added steel and obstinacy to their game - to the detriment of their art, if some critics can be believed. While the Netherlands and Brazil have so far bulldozed their way to the last eight, with the odd flash of brilliance, both teams are going to have to tap into the creativity so ingrained in their nations' football cultures to reach the semi-finals.

Attacking prowess key to surprise result

Netherlands' Wesley Sneijder, center, scores the team's second goal during the World Cup round of 16 soccer match between the Netherlands and Slovakia at the stadium in Durban, South Africa, Monday, June 28, 2010.

Wesley Sneijder is an attacking threat both as a creator and executor of goal-scoring opportunities

As yet, we've only seen a modicum of what Wesley Sneijder can do. The midfielder has almost preternatural vision for incisive passes and can seemingly spot a teammate's run before it even begins - see the pass he launched from his own half to set up Robben's opener against Slovakia a case in point.

Sneijder's ability to release Robben and van Persie will be critical in getting behind the Brazilian defense. This means that van Bommel and Rafael van der Vaart are going to have to get the ball away from their own defense as fast as possible, feeding Sneijder while Kuyt and Robben fly down the wings.

Bert van Marwijk employs the 4-2-3-1 formation with van Persie up front alone, so the three offensive midfielders will have to attack at speed, dragging the Brazil defense across the pitch and allow van Persie a direct line into the box.

Brazil clash the real test of how far Holland has come

Brazil's attacking threat cannot be underestimated and the Dutch back four will have to be on their game to deal with Luis Fabiano and Robinho, while van Bommel and van der Vaart will have to work hard to prevent Kaka pulling the strings in midfield.

Brazil's Maicon controls the ball during the World Cup group G soccer match between Portugal and Brazil at the stadium in Durban, South Africa, Friday, June 25, 2010.

Maicon adds an extra dimension to an already potent Brazil attack from his wing-back position

Kuyt and Robben will both be needed to provide defensive cover against marauding wing attacks from Maicon and Michel Bastos, which means that, as so often, the exciting Eljero Elia may not see action until later in the game. The young Hamburg winger has pace to burn but is not robust enough to help the Dutch back four when they come under pressure from Brazil's wing-backs.

Brazil is the Netherlands' biggest test of this World Cup to date. Friday's quarter-final clash will show just how far the new Dutch spirit can take them. Belief, efficiency and organization may have got them this far but the Dutch will need a bit of the magic of old if they are to overcome the side most view as the present cup's strongest.

Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Matt Hermann

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