Let's be blunt here: The Netherlands had a disastrous Euro 2012. The Holland squad scored a measly two goals, picked up no points in the group stages, and forced natives to hastily dismantle floods of orange flags and banners when they crashed out after just three games. Upon returning from the tournament, coach Bert van Marwijk resigned, and Louis van Gaal was appointed in his place.
One of the most interesting things about Holland's meltdown is that they had a near-perfect qualification campaign, losing only to Sweden in their final match. Now, as they prepare for the 2014 World Cup, the qualification is progressing in the same manner -- the oranje have won all four of their matches. But is this another illusion of strength, brought on by being drawn in a weak group, or has van Gaal made significant changes to Holland's international strategy?
Alas, Holland may have found themselves a new coach, but that coach clings to the old ways, preferring the veterans to the excellent crop of untested Dutch footballers. A quick scan of the rosters for both the last qualifier against Romania and the friendly against Germany reveals a host of familiar names: Arjen Robben, Dirk Kuyt, Nigel De Jong, Robin van Persie, Rafael Van der Vaart. The benches contain names of players we were excited to see way back in 2010: Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Eljero Elia, and Ibrahim Afellay. As in 2012, this is a squad that will conquer the qualifying rounds and then stagger out of the group stages, bleeding and licking their wounds in shame.
But those looking to see a more exciting Dutch squad should tune in for the match against Italy, which features a host of players from the Eredivisie. The oldest midfielder is Jonathan De Guzmán, getting his first callup, but despite his EPL credentials he's not the most interesting cog in the midfield wheel. The Dutch league is producing some terrific homegrown midfielders, including Kevin Strootman, Adam Maher and Marco van Ginkel. Let's cross our fingers that van Gaal chooses to let us see what these players can do together, with an eye toward a fresher squad come Brazil.
As for Italy, their fortunes in Euro 2012 were the opposite of Wednesday's opponent. Few outside of the azzurri supporters expected much from the squad, so when they made it to the final, it was something of a surprise. But with an excellent midfield that seemed to be outclassed only by Spain, the Italians were able to reestablish themselves as one of the greats in world football.
What many don't remember, however, is that Croatia, too, were able to assert their dominance over Italy's midfield, completely removing the threat of Andrea Pirlo. Just as Serie A opponents are now able to find ways of neutralizing the Juventus midfield, so to will international opponents be able to do the same. As such, it's essential that Cesare Prandelli make a few changes to his squad.
Yet many of the names remain the same. Pirlo, of course, is included in the players set to face Holland, as are Daniele De Rossi and Riccardo Montolivo. Callups have been handed to Andrea Candreva and Alessandro Florenzi, but the most exciting addition is young Marco Verratti, who impressed so much at Pescara last season that Paris Saint Germain snapped him up.
What's most exciting about Italy's future, however, is not their midfield but their strikers. With Antonio Di Natale and Antonio Cassano being left out, and Giampaolo Pazzini falling out of favor, the youngsters will be getting their chances. There's Mario Balotelli, of course, who will almost certainly bring excitement to any match, although he with that excitement there's also the possibility of intense disappointment. Prandelli would do well to start him up front with new teammate Stephan El Shaarawy, who's been the shining light in what was, until recently, an extremely disappointing season for AC Milan.
Although they haven't been called up for this week's friendly, Italy has a host of other young, talented strikers that they should be grooming for Brazil. Lorenzo Insigne, Mattia Destro, and Manolo Gabbiadini are a few that have been called up recently, while Prandelli would do well to take a look at Nicola Sansone as well. Italy's midfield is still strong, but it's the young forwards that could make this squad truly exciting.