Preview Low Countries derby: Netherlands vs. Belgium
The Low Countries derby tonight is the perfect warm up for the oldest international football rivalry in the world on Friday.
The fixture kick-starts the international break at 7.45pm in the Amsterdam ArenA and is available in the UK on Chelsea TV.
The match is officialy a sparring session as both the Netherlands and Belgium play a World Cup qualifier against respectively Luxembourg and Estonia on Sunday.
However, the hotly contested derby shares a lot of characteristics with the intense English Scottish face-off, excelling at flying tackles, red cards and hat-trick fuelled high score lines.
A bit of history
In 1905, more than thirty years after England and Scotland drew in the first international football game ever, the Netherlands officially crowned themselves the first kings of the Low Countries as they beat Belgium 4-1.
The Netherlands have historically dominated Belgium with 55 wins to Belgium’s 41 out of a total of 125 meetings, a number only trumped by the contests between Argentina vs. Uruguay and Hungary vs. Austria.
As a result, no Belgian in their right mind would ever dare to put Belgium’s history of the game up there with that of the Netherlands.
However, in the last twenty or so years almost all derbies have been hard fought regardless of the differences in individual quality.
In very recent history the tap stream of world class Dutch players has started to drip, when the Belgian stream is bursting as never before.
At a time when big names like Cruijff, Van Basten, Koeman, Bergkamp and Van Nistelrooy are known to younger fans only as people who stand, or stood, around the pitch shouting, it is the Belgian players who provide all the glitter and glamour of modern day football.
One of the markers of this new, Premier League driven, Belgian ‘golden’ generation was the team’s 4-2 victory in the last Low Countries derby in 2012 in Brussels.
The Netherlands’ failure to qualify for the 2016 Euros in France has shifted the power hierarchy which puts even more pressure on tonight’s fixture.
Current state of affairs
A look at the squad selections by national managers Roberto Martinez and Danny Blind reveals there are a couple of big game changers.
Perhaps the most important one was the omission of Dutch legend Arjen Robben as he is to have extra training sessions at his club Bayern Munich.
The winger has only just returned from another long term injury and has not played for his national side since November 2015.
Manager Blind said: “I want Robben at a 100 percent for our WC qualifier against Luxembourg, that game is more important.”
The derby is, however, not completely unimportant in the manager’s eyes, more than prestige, Blind thinks of moving up the FIFA-ranking, which comes into play if they are involved in play-offs.
As they currently hold third spot in their group, trailing France and Sweden by three points, such a scenario does not seem entirely unlikely in the current era.
Another example of the Netherlands' glorified past and its doubtful future, is the Dutch veteran Wesley Sneijder who is closing in on Edwin van der Sar’s 130 international cap record.
After a perfect nine out of nine in their first three WC qualifiers, Belgium manager Martinez has had to rebuild his defence in the absence of his main brick Toby Alderweireld.
However, there is good news. Youngster full back Thomas Foket from AA Gent received his first call up and for the first time in a year fans saw natural captain Vincent Kompany train again with the national team.
Kompany is said to be fit, but it is highly unlikely he will play the full 90 minutes and as for actually wearing the armband Martinez said: “I don’t care who wears it, I want a team full of leaders.”
The manager’s decision to leave out accomplished Radja Nainngolan was controversial, but it left an opening for another debut, young midfield talent Youri Tielemans, 19, from RSCA Anderlecht.
He has been playing in first divisions football since he was 16 and is followed by the eager eyes of many top clubs as he hopes to get some minutes against the Netherlands.
There will also be no Marouane Fellaini as he injured his calf late in training with the Belgian squad.
Another point of discussion was the system Martinez will play. Although the three man defence worked well in their previous game against Gibraltar, the absence of the Alderweireld makes it somewhat less likely.
Even in the absence of some important players, Belgium seem pretty confident.
Offensively they hold some of the richest gems of the Premier League, if Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku perform as they are at club level there is no reason to be doubtful.
The Dutch are more reluctant. Some specialists see something in the books for them as an underdog, others fear the absence of Arjen Robben makes them powerless.
On the Dutch football talk show ‘Voetbal Inside’ retired right winger and controversial football analyst René van der Gijp expressed an even stronger opinion:
“Belgium have a good side. They have a better player on every position. If we should park the bus? I would rather not, just call of the game and tell them we are not really in the mood.”