Dutch old masters must raise their game for World Cup

A pivotal figure in European football in recent years, Arjen Robben leads a clutch of Dutch masters who know this year may represent their last chance to help the Netherlands finally get their hands on the World Cup.

Bayern Munich winger Robben and Manchester United`s Robin van Persie, both 30, Hamburg`s Rafael van der Vaart, 31, and Galatasaray`s Wesley Sneijder, who will be 30 on June 9, are driven by the memory of their extra-time defeat to Spain in the 2010 World Cup final in Johannesburg.

European champions in 1988, the Netherlands have reached three World Cup finals and lost them all. 

An elegant side were beaten by hosts West Germany in 1974 and Argentina four years later. In 2010, a team full of talented players eliminated Brazil in the quarter-finals but they are best remembered for their aggressive tactics which included a studs-up challenge by Nigel de Jong on the chest of Spain`s Xabi Alonso in the final.

Coach Louis van Gaal, in his second spell in charge having stood down when they failed to qualify for the 2002 World Cup, has injected some younger talent into the side that failed so abysmally at Euro 2012. 

Just two years after reaching the World Cup final they went out in the group stage in Ukraine.

Van Gaal, who is standing down after the finals whatever the outcome, has not let an excellent qualifying campaign -- they won nine and drew one of their 10 games -- cloud his appraisal of their chances of success in Brazil.

The 62-year-old`s attempts to play down expectations look even wiser given the tough draw they were handed.

Indeed, they could even struggle to reach the knockout stages from a group also containing reigning champions Spain, dark horses Chile and rank outsiders Australia.

"We are not one of the favourites," he said back in March.

"I view Brazil and Argentina and, from Europe, Spain and Germany as the favourites.

"We consider ourselves as outsiders. I arrived as coach (after Euro 2012) with certain targets: qualify for the finals and then reach the semi-finals.

"We have introduced a lot of fresh young blood into the team and played really nice football and scored a lot of goals in the qualifying group.

"However, the semi-finals will be a really hard goal to achieve."

A 2-0 defeat in their friendly with France in March -- their first loss since August 2012 -- added weight to van Gaal`s comments.

It was followed shortly afterwards by a hammerblow when 24-year-old Roma midfielder Kevin Strootman - along with Robben and van Persie one of the three players the coach had singled out as being indispensable - was ruled out of the finals with ruptured knee ligaments.

"It`s a small catastrophe," said Van Gaal, who made his name as a top-level coach with a young Ajax side that won the Champions League in 1995.

"Kevin was in his best form for both the national team and Roma. It is an enormous loss for the Netherlands because he contributed largely to qualification."

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