Netherlands return to the World Cup after an eight-year absence following their shock truancy at 2018; and Louis van Gaal, who guided the nation to third in their last appearance in 2014, is at the helm for his third tour of duty. His starting task in Qatar will be to battle it out with the African champions, Senegal, early next week.
Van Gaal has unfinished business in football’s blue-riband tournament. Having failed to guide Netherlands to the 2002 World Cup, two decades on he will now be looking to make up for lost time and replicate, if not better, Oranje‘s exploits in Brazil nearly 10 years ago, where they collected a Bronze Medal across the Atlantic.
Senegal are under the familiar auspices of Aliou Cisse, who was captain of the nation’s first World Cup appearance in 2002, and then manager of their second appearance in 2018. With a recent Afcon triumph under their belt Senegal travel to Qatar full of confidence but we will now have to see how they fare following the blow of Sadio Mane’s injury.
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Van Gaal’s men are unbeaten this year in all competitions, qualifying for the Nations League finals as Group A4 winners, ahead of Belgium, with five wins from six. There were many contributing factors to Oranje‘s tournament-year success, but few had the level of impact as Ajax forward Steven Bergwijn, who has netted five goals this year alone to top score for the nation in 2022 so far. Having netted 11 goals in 21 matches for Ajax this season, Bergwijn travels to Qatar in red-hot form.
The Netherlands can also look to Cody Gakpo for final-third inspiration. The PSV forward is the only player in Europe’s top seven leagues this season to register more than 10 assists (12), with Lionel Messi only being able to match him for double digits (10). It is no wonder then that Dutch legend Robin van Persie recently described him as a ‘dangerous all-rounder’.
“He is a good player,” Van Persie told BT Sport last month. “He always finds a way in most games to have an influence, in terms of making an assist or a goal, he’s always dangerous.
“He is not really an out-and-out striker. He can play as a No.10, he can play on the wing, or as a false striker, he can play in those four positions in front. He has a good physique, he is strong, fast, he can dribble. He is an all-round player.”
For Senegal, Sadio Mane is out after sustaining an injury for Bayern Munich that they had hoped wouldn’t rule him out of the tournament. Cisse will have to look elsewhere for attacking inspiration, but he has a potential ace up his sleeve in uncapped Villarreal marksman Nicolas Jackson. He (16) is second only to Alex Baena (18) for most shots in La Liga this season for Villarreal players, while only Daniel Parejo (five) has created more big chances than him (four), showcasing an appetite for final-third devastation.
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