The first game in Group B, or ‘the group of death’, takes place on Saturday as the Netherlands play Denmark. The presence of Germany and Portugal in the group means that Group B consists of four teams ranked in the world’s top ten, with Portugal having the lowest ranking of those teams at tenth.
I’m sure no-one reading this needs me to tell them just how strong a team the Netherlands are. Not only did they reach the last World Cup final, but they were able to follow up the disappointment of losing that game by putting in a near-flawless qualifying campaign for this tournament, picking up 27 out of a possible 30 points, with the only blemish being a defeat in Sweden after qualification was already secured, and scoring an amazing 37 goals along the way, conceding only 8. Last August, the Netherlands were ranked the number one team in the world.
I’m sure you’re also well aware just how good some of the Dutch players are. Robin van Persie has been in red-hot form for the last eighteen months; Arjen Robben and Mark van Bommel have also been delivering high-quality performances on a weekly basis for their clubs.
So, the Netherlands are justifiably one of the favourites for the tournament. However, scratch the surface a little and there are real question marks over this Dutch team. Even though the Netherlands have some superstars, there are a few question marks and weaknesses in this team that Denmark will be looking to exploit.
The first question that Bart van Marwijk has to answer is how will they play? The Netherlands have a tradition of playing ‘total football’, but van Marwijk’s team play a far more pragmatic style of football, which, while it suits the players they have well, hasn’t totally won over the Dutch public, particularly the rough tactics employed in the World Cup final. This means van Marwijk may be under real pressure, not just to win, but to win in the style the Dutch believe they should be playing.
There are also real questions as to the overall strength of the squad. Since ensuring qualification to the tournament, the Netherlands’ form in friendlies has been patchy; with a heavy defeat to Germany in the absence of van Persie and Robben (and both have a considerable history of injuries), showing that if you take some of the big name players out of that team, the Netherlands look vulnerable. The Netherlands do have a lot of talent in reserve in attack, Klass-Jan Huntelaar is an excellent option for van Marwijk and will be used if he goes with two strikers, and there are a lot of options for him in central midfield, but on the flanks, and in defence, there is real cause for concern as to what happens if a few players get injured or suspended.
Van Marwijk will probably start with the majority of the players who played in the World Cup final, and that presents a few problems. Some of those players have lost their places in their respective club sides. Wesley Sneijder was rightly considered one of the best midfielders in the world two years ago, but has been in and out of the Inter team since. He has had a few injuries, but even when fit, he has either been shunted out to the left, or left on the bench.
Similarly, Dirk Kuyt has just recently left Liverpool after spending the majority of last season out of the starting XI, Nigel de Jong hasn’t started many games for Manchester City this season, and Joris Mathijsen has had the same problem at Malaga. Ibrahim Afellay missed most of last season with a knee injury. So there are concerns that some of the players won’t be completely match fit or in form.
Also, there is a real question mark surrounding the defence, especially if van Marwijk does go with only one holding midfielder. Joris Mathijsen is out of this game with a hamstring injury, which will mean that Ron Vlaar, who is relatively inexperienced, may get a start in the centre of defence alongside Johnny Heitinga, who has spent a lot of his time at Everton playing in midfield rather than defence. Left-back is also a real problem. Erik Pieters didn’t make the squad, so his PSV understudy, Jetro Willems may get the start, but at 18-years-old, he’s the youngest player at the EURO’s and has only picked up two caps so far, so it would be a big ask for him to come in and play well, especially as he is likely to be lined up against a wily player in Dennis Rommedahl against Denmark. If Willems doesn’t cope with the pressure, the only other option at left-back is Stijn Schaars who’s really a midfielder.
Van Marwijk likes his team to play a 4-2-3-1 formation, albeit a slightly asymmetrical one. This allows van Persie to drag the centre-backs around, creating space for Robben to exploit inside. In the qualifiers, van Marwijk experimented with playing only one holding midfielder, with de Jong replaced by Kevin Strootman or Rafael van der Vaart playing instead, though I believe he will go back to playing the two holding players, at least to start with.
The Dutch players won’t be intimidated by the Danish defence. Denmark’s full-backs are solid, but unspectacular, and certainly no match for Robben, Afellay, Kuyt or whoever plays out wide and van Persie will fancy his chances against whichever of Simon Kjӕr or Andreas Bjelland lines up alongside Daniel Agger in defence.
Here's my predicted lineup for the Netherlands
Denmark will have been cursing their luck ever since the draw was made. Put them in any of the other groups and you’d fancy them to get through to the next round, and certainly none of the other teams in Group B will have been relishing the prospect of playing them either. On paper, quite how Denmark will manage get out of a group containing Holland and Germany is the type of mystery that even Sarah Lund would struggle to come up with a solution to, but Denmark qualifying out of this group isn’t that far-fetched a notion.
Denmark are the antithesis of the Netherlands in that they are a team that doesn’t really have any star players (I wouldn’t call Christian Eriksen a star just yet), but rely on an extremely strong team-first ethic. Denmark are an extremely well-organised team, and in Morten Olsen, have a coach who has been their manager for 12 years, has a ton of experience, the total respect of all of his players, and knows how to wring every last drop of talent out of his side, as Denmark do have a tendency to punch above their weight at international level.
Denmark are more than capable of giving any team a bloody nose on their day, and Holland would do well to remind themselves of that fact, just in case they were looking past Denmark to the Germany game. Denmark also have a good record at international tournaments, as they generally get past the group stages more often than not, though they were somewhat subdued at the last World Cup.
Morten Olsen usually has Denmark lining up in a 4-3-3 formation, though he varies exactly how he utilises that formation and can easily change it to a 4-2-3-1, which gives Denmark a lot of tactical flexibility during a game.
After Thomas Sorensen was forced to withdraw from the squad with a back injury, there is a question mark as to who will play in goal. Former Charlton Athletic keeper Stephan Andersen, who played in the last World Cup, will probably beat out Manchester United’s Anders Lindegaard and Leicester’s Kasper Schmeichel for the starting job.
There is also a question as to who will play alongside the excellent Daniel Agger in the centre of defence. Simon Kjӕr is a highly talented and experienced player, but he has been below par for a while now, so it could well be the relatively inexperienced Andreas Bjelland, who is coming off an excellent season for Danish Superliga champions Nordsjӕlland, who gets the nod to play in the middle. Lars Jacobsen and Simon Poulsen will probably be the full-backs.
The midfield three will probably consist of Eriksen playing as an attacking midfielder in order to utilise his playmaking abilities, with William Kvist and either Kvist’s childhood friend Niki Zimling, or former captain Christian Poulsen, playing as holding midfielders behind him.
Normally, Denmark’s front three consists of the still-dangerous veteran Dennis Rommedahl playing nominally as a right-winger, but overlaps with Nicklas Bendtner regularly, with Michael Krohn-Dehli acting as a link on the left between midfield and Bendtner, who will carry the attack in the centre. If Olsen chooses to play 4-2-3-1, Rommedahl and Krohn-Dehli will drop a bit deeper.
Here's my predicted lineup for Denmark
While Denmark have only won six of their 28 games against the Netherlands and haven’t beaten them in a competitive game for 45 years, they will remember that in the last World Cup, Denmark gave the Dutch a really good game before shooting themselves in the foot by conceding two stupid goals to lose 2-0; the first a comical own goal by the unfortunate Daniel Agger after Simon Poulsen’s amazingly poor header hit him on the back and went in, the second goal was a tap in from two yards by Dirk Kuyt after Elia hit the post for the Dutch.
So Denmark won’t be too overawed by the Netherlands, and I expect this game to be quite a far more even contest than some others would have you think. The key for Denmark in this game will be whether or not they manage to deny van Persie and Robben the space that they need to operate, which means that the performances of Kvist and whoever out of Zimling and Christian Poulsen plays, will play a huge part in determining the final outcome of this game,
Similarly, Denmark have to support Christian Erikson, for as talented as he is ( he scored 8 goals and made 21 assists for Ajax last season), he is still only 20 and cannot carry the team by himself, which means the three players in front of him will have to work hard. As stated earlier, Dennis Rommedahl could well be facing a young, inexperienced left-back, and though he’s not as quick as he once was, Rommedahl will be looking to use the considerable pace he still has and his experience to get in behind the Dutch defence and wreak havoc, which may well create space for Bendtner.
Group B should be a really tight group, with every team in it capable of beating each other. On paper Germany and the Netherlands should qualify, but Denmark may fancy their chances of getting a point out of the Netherlands, and repeating their qualifying win over Portugal in the tournament proper. 4 points may well be sufficient to get into the quarter finals, and 4 points was what Denmark managed 20 years ago when they went on to win the tournament.
My prediction: A hard-fought draw. Netherlands 1-1 Denmark