For two years the Netherlands have likely asked themselves the question, what if? With a World Cup within their reach, the Dutch fell to Spain in the final of the 2010 World Cup in an ugly match that left a bad taste in pretty much everyone's mouth. Now Bert van Marwijk's team finally will get a chance at redemption as they enter Euro 2012 as one of the tournament favorites.
There's every reason to believe this version of the Netherlands could be better than the 2010 one. The starting lineup remains virtually the same, which the main difference being more experience for an already talented group of players. The question now simply becomes whether or not this group can shake the ghost from South Africa and finally live up to the potential...oh yeah, the'll need to defend too.
The Oranje were dominant in the qualification rounds, scoring 37 goals in 10 matches and looking nothing like the defensive and downright ugly group that lost to Spain two years ago. Putting the ball in the net shouldn't be a problem for the Dutch, instead the biggest question facing van Marwik will be in the defense.
Joris Mathijsen's hamstring injury leaves a doubt in the central defense and could lead to the ultimate "bull in a china shop" Nigel de Jong playing next to captain Mark van Bommel in the defensive midfield to help bolster the defense. This duo won't wow anyone or inspire any illusions of a return to total football, but they are experienced and if they can avoid the yellow cards (or worse) that these two are known for, they should serve their purpose fine. De Jong's likely place in the starting lineup has caused consternation amongst many who feel a player like Rafael Van der Vaart would be a better choice and more loyal to the Oranje's footballing tradition.
If the dangerous offensive weapons in the Dutch attack do their job, all that may not matter.
There's no doubt the strength of this team is their attacking options. Forward Robin van Persie is coming off another excellent club season with Arsenal, while Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder will cause opposing defenses fits in the midfield. Robben is fresh off Champions League disappointment with Bayern, while Sneijder struggled this season with injuries and the revolving door of managers at Inter. We all know how good they are, but both must bounce back and step up to finally push this generation of Netherland players over the top. Striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar who was in sensational form for Schalke 04 this year will be on the roster, but repeated attempts to pair him with Van Persie up front have not worked, so he will likely be forced in to a reserve role.
Van Marwijk's 4-2-3-1 system is built on simplicity. It's all about players doing their jobs and letting the skill players fulfill their roles. How well the Dutch are able to strike a balance in the midfield between keeping possession and attacking creativity will be a big part of how far this team ultimately goes.
Projected lineup (4-2-3-1)
GK: Maarrten Stekelenburg; LB Jetro Willems, CB John Heitinga, CB Ron Vlaar, RB Gregory Van Der Wiel; DM Nigel De Jong, DM Mark Van Bommel; LM Ibrahim Affelay CM Wesley Sneijder RM Arjen Robben; F Robin Van Persie
Wesley Sneijder: On a team with so much attacking depth, it's tough to pick just one as a key player. Despite that, Wesley Sneijder is likely to be the difference for the Netherlands between lifting a trophy and another disappointing tournament. After struggling during the club season, the 27-year old needs to build on the improved performances he showed in the spring and return to the world class form that saw him considered one of the best attacking midfielder in the world just two years ago.
Final: If the Netherlands get out of their group, it's hard not to see them moving on the final. The talent is certainly there along with plenty of experience, but there's enough question surrounding this team to plant the seed of doubt. Can the defense hold up and do their job against the likes of Germany and Portugal? Will Robben's mind be in the right place and can Sneijder return to form? It's hard to pick against this team, but it's also hard to outright call them the favorites. Am I riding the fence, absolutely, but it's hard not too when it comes to the Oranje at the moment. That said, I'm still going to predict they'll make the final...winning it is a different matter.