AMSTERDAM (AP) - Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal’s greatest triumph came when he led Ajax to the Champions League title in 1995 by blending a nucleus of experienced veterans with highly talented youngsters like Patrick Kluivert, Clarence Seedorf and Edgar Davids.
Van Gaal has a similar challenge in the Dutch team for the World Cup - forging a team out of the old and the new; getting Robin van Persie to work alongside the likes of Daley Blind.
Facing tough Group B opponents in Spain, Chile and Australia, Van Gaal will have to find the right mix in a hurry. The Netherlands’ first match is a repeat of the 2010 World Cup final, which the Netherlands lost in extra time to Spain.
Here are five players to watch:
ROBIN VAN PERSIE
It seems hard to believe that four years ago in South Africa, Robin van Persie wasn’t even the Netherlands’ undisputed striker.
He is now, but he remains under pressure to finally showcase his goal-scoring skills on the biggest stage.
Van Persie flourished first with Arsenal and then Manchester United after the disappointment of losing the 2010 World Cup final to Spain 1-0 - a tournament in which he scored only once.
At the 2012 European Championship in Poland and Ukraine, he again failed to provide the goals his team so desperately needed, scoring once in three games as the Dutch finished last in Group B and left the tournament without a point.
Van Persie recently became the Netherlands’ top scorer of all time, overtaking Patrick Kluivert’s 40-goal mark. But he will be desperately hoping that Brazil is the tournament at which he finally buries criticism that he can’t find the net in major tournaments.
While his club is having a miserable Premier League season, Van Persie has continued to score goals in between injury absences.
Speedy Bayern Munich winger Arjen Robben laid to rest the demons of a squandered chance in the 2010 World Cup final and missed penalty in the 2012 Champions League final by setting up a goal and scoring the winner in last year’s Champions League decider.
“That’s three finals, and of course you don’t want the stamp of a loser. You don’t want that tag,” Robben said after the 2013 Champions League final. “It was a sense of ‘finally.’ It was unbelievable.”
Now he is, along with Van Persie, part of the old guard of the current Dutch team.
In Brazil, look out for his trademark move: Dribbling along the right wing, cutting inside and curling a left-foot shot into the far top corner. Robben’s been doing it for years and still defenders struggle to stop him.
One of the top scorers with five goals at the 2010 World Cup, midfielder Wesley Sneijder is now not even certain to make the starting lineup in Brazil.
Sneijder’s career has been on the slide since 2010, the year in which he inspired Inter Milan to the Champions League title and was the creative inspiration for the Dutch success in South Africa.
After falling out of favor at Inter, he moved to Turkish club Galatasaray, where he won a national title in a fourth country after the Netherlands, Spain and Italy.
Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal sees Sneijder as a central midfielder, but he has been posted on the left by Galatasaray, leading to question marks over his role in Brazil. However, with Kevin Strootman out injured, Van Gaal’s midfield options are limited and Sneijder’s experience will make him an asset the coach may not be able to overlook.
Ajax utility player Daley Blind’s dad, Danny, has already been chosen to take over as Netherlands coach following the 2016 European Championship. By that time, his son is expected to be a regular in his country’s defense or midfield.
Blind has been one of Dutch champion Ajax’s most-improved players this season and is equally comfortable at left back or in the midfield.
That versatility will likely make him an important part of the Dutch squad in Brazil, especially in the absence of Strootman.
Blind is a tireless worker who is equally comfortable tackling back or driving forward in attack. He could be one of the relatively lesser known Dutch players to make a name for himself at the World Cup.
For years, the goalkeeper’s name was one of the first to go onto the Dutch teamsheet - Edwin van der Sar and, after he retired, Maarten Stekelenburg.
Now, the No. 1 shirt is up for grabs.
The main options appear to be Michel Vorm of Swansea, Tim Krul of Newcastle, Stekelenburg, now with Fulham, or Jasper Cillessen, who only broke into the Ajax first team this season.
With Krul and Vorm both having their season’s interrupted by injuries and Stekelenburg appearing out of favor, Cillessen may get the nod.
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