Monday, November 29, 1999

Netherlands, Japan in clash of Group E front-runners

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Durban, June 18 (DPA) The Netherlands and Japan are set to clash Saturday in a match of the front-runners in Group E of World Cup football here.The prize for a successful effort at Moses Mabhida stadium could be big: in case of a draw in the later match between Cameroon and Denmark in Pretoria, the winner in the Netherlands-Japan game would prematurely qualify for the second round.Both teams won their World Cup openers, although the two had help from under-par rivals. While the Japanese beat an apathetic Cameroon 1-0, the Dutch made the most of an own-goal and some poor defending to defeat Denmark 2-0.The Netherlands, with players who are active in Europe's top leagues, won all their matches in the European World Cup qualifiers and are the better side on paper despite the absence of superstar Arjen Robben.However, they will have to prove on the pitch that they can find ways to get past their well-organized Japanese rivals. Switzerland already proved with their upset of Spain that good defensive work can go a long way against a better team.Japan coach Takeshi Okada admitted after Japan's opener that the Dutch, featuring the likes of Wesley Sneijder and Rafael Van der Vaart, would be tougher than Cameroon.'Against the Netherlands we need to take our game a step further,' he said.The Netherlands, in turn, enjoyed their win even if it did not come as a consequence of the creative play that has traditionally characterised the Oranje. Efficiency is an asset, and this team, coached by Bert van Marwijk, hopes it can lead to the longed-for World Cup title that has escaped even its most talented predecessors.Van Marwijk, 58, and his players know that any criticism of less-than-beautiful play will vanish as long as results are good. Indeed, during the 22 matches under his guidance, van Marwijk has built up the best record of any Netherlands coach so far.But the Dutch have historically valued their creative play more than any title, and they are still not that excited about a coach who is ready to put attacking talent in the service of efficiency. Of course, van Marwijk and everyone else believe that attaining the elusive World Cup title could quickly change this.In the meantime, with the title still a long way off, the coach has been studying rival teams before deciding on which tactics to deploy.'It's not always appropriate to play beautifully,' he warned.And his players have got the message.'It's true that we played a bit like the Germans,' van der Vaart said of their first World Cup match. 'The coach has brought us a greater effectiveness.'But this no-frills style commands only fragile support, and above all it depends on results: an inopportune defeat, or even a draw, against any rival could bring back calls for creativity on the pitch. And even lowly Japan could bring about a crisis for the Dutch.

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