Thursday 22 March 2018

Van Persie epitomises Dutch masters' demise

Former United and Arsenal striker cuts forlorn figure as Holland flops face missing out on finals

Robin Van Persie may not get the chance to add to his century of international caps
Robin Van Persie may not get the chance to add to his century of international caps

Ian Hawkey

Robin van Persie dutifully acknowledged the "honour" bestowed on him.

He had just reached his century of international caps. It would be "a great feeling, later" to reflect on reaching triple figures, Van Persie said, as he prepared for the very long journey home from Astana in Kazakhstan, Holland having won in their penultimate Euro 2016 qualifier 2-1.

The milestone is heart-warming and distinguished. But the 100th cap itself felt about as unfulfilling, personally, as it could be.

As temperatures dropped on Saturday evening on the far Europe-Asia frontier, Van Persie sat among the substitutes. He watched a labouring Dutch starting XI in which nine of the players had accumulated, between them, fewer caps than he has.

He looked on as the team's preferred centre-forward, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, waited in vain for the entire first half to make significant contact with the ball in the opposition penalty area.

"I would rather not have started on the bench," Van Persie, 32, said. "But the victory was the important thing."

His 100th cap lasted just under 10 minutes, a cameo appearance as a late replacement for Huntelaar.

There was further anti-climax later in the evening when he and the rest of the squad learnt that Turkey had beaten the Czech Republic, so Group A kept its peculiar, topsy-turvy look ahead of the last round of fixtures tomorrow.

The Dutch sit fourth, two points off the play-off place, their sole hope of reaching the repechage depending on them beating the Czech Republic tomorrow and Turkey losing at home to Iceland, who, like the Czechs, have secured their place in France.


No player better epitomises the descent of the Dutch national team over less than 18 months than Van Persie.

In June 2014 he was hurling himself - resourceful, innovative and thrillingly athletic - to head the most spectacular of the five goals they scored against Spain in their opening game of the World Cup finals.

His then coach Louis van Gaal purred before explaining how he and Van Persie, the Dutch captain, had consulted about the cunning, flexible tactics that would carry the Netherlands far in Brazil.

Van Gaal would brag about these all the way to the semi-finals, where the Dutch lost, on penalties, to Argentina.

After a season together at Manchester United, Van Gaal and Van Persie made a less happy couple.

Last summer the striker joined Fenerbahce, where he is far enough away from an automatic first-team pick that Holland's current coach, Danny Blind, has left him on the bench for three successive games.

Blind, appointed in June after Guus Hiddink had overseen the rickety start to qualifying, gave debuts to four men against Kazakhstan and gained his first victory in charge.

If that selection suggests Blind has half an eye on what Holland might become in time for the 2018 World Cup, he was acting prudently.

The Dutch need some extraordinary luck and an improbable favour from Iceland if they are not to miss out on their first major tournament since Van Gaal failed to guide them through qualifying for the 2002 World Cup.

Luck, according to Wesley Sneijder, whose second-half goal in Astana effectively kept Holland in the last-chance saloon, is what they have not had since Van Gaal's second stint ended.

"We had good fortune with us most of the way during the World Cup," Sneijder believes. "It's been completely against us in these qualifiers."

The latest snag? The addition of two goalkeepers to a list of injured which already included Arjen Robben. Jasper Cillessen hurt himself warming up in Astana and then Newcastle United's Tim Krul withdrew nine minutes from full-time with a knee problem.

Jeroen Zoet, the third choice, may have to make his first international start against the Czechs - a novice last line of defence in a team that have conceded in all but two of their nine qualifiers so far.

That is by no means the most damning analysis of what has come undone.

Ruud Gullit, figurehead of the Holland who won the 1988 European Championship, spoke of a "lack of chemistry" in the squad; Johan Cruyff, former captain and lordly opinion-former of Dutch football, described what he has seen in terms to wound deeply a nation that likes to regard its football as uniquely learned, proactive, and self-confident.

"No depth, no movement, no tactical education," wrote Cruyff.

Failure to make the play-offs would effectively put Holland, third in the world in Brazil 15 months ago, outside the best 28 of Europe.

De Telegraaf boomed: "Northern Ireland are at the Euros and Holland are not!"

Iceland, who have beaten the Dutch twice in Group A, are there, too. There are half a dozen countries whose presence in France would make the men in orange blush with embarrassment.

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