With a couple of games remaining in the European section of World Cup qualifying, Netherlands and Italy became the first two nations from the continent to book a place at next summer’s tournament in Brazil with victories on Tuesday night.
Wins over Andorra and Czech Republic respectively will see these historic nations compete in the competition. With their history and quality of players past and present, it would be hard to imagine the event without these two countries in attendance.
However, with Spain the champions, Germany looking increasingly strong, Brazil winning the Confederations Cup on home soil and Argentina with Lionel Messi, few people are talking about these two as contenders. What are their chances of winning the tournament?
Netherlands’ performance at major tournaments is traditionally tough to predict, with the Oranje capable of being terrific or terrible. They reached the final in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, only to be beaten in all three group games and eliminated immediately two years later at Euro 2012.
Arguably the most prominent footballing nation to never lift a World Cup, Netherlands have a track record of producing some of the best footballers in the game. Despite this, the current crop do not have the plethora of big names that have been sprinkled throughout their past.
Manchester United striker Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder are the most established players in their squad, with a wealth of new talent being incorporated into the mix. Louis van Gaal is seemingly picking his side based on form rather than reputation, which could well be a winning formula.
Critical to Holland’s chances of success is ascertaining harmony amongst the squad. In previous competitions there have been rumblings of discontent, in-fighting and factions in the Oranje squad, which have led to disappointing performances on the pitch, despite the ability of the individual components of the team.
Van Gaal has introduced young players from the Eredivisie such as Stefan de Vrij, Daryl Janmaat and Jetro Willems to his team, which bodes well for the future of the national side. Whether these young stars are ready to take on the world’s best in less than 12 months we will find out.
A driving force in the side is Roma’s Kevin Strootman. A born leader and archetypical box-to-box midfielder, if the former PSV Eindhoven can stay fit and on form he will drive the Netherlands into the latter stages of the tournament.
Netherlands are a tough one to call, but a repeat of group-stage elimination from Euro 2012 would be a major surprise. Expect them to make the quarter-finals, but they could come unstuck against some of the superior footballing sides in the competition.
Four-time winners Italy are always a dark horse for success at major competitions, even when they are seemingly being written off. The country’s players seem to have a national psyche of knowing how to win and have a renowned tough mentality when it comes to crunch time.
The best Italian sides of the past were built around a solid defence and the team that steps out in Brazil will be no different. Cesare Prandelli has instilled a strong Juventus-influenced rearguard, with the likes of Gianluigi Buffon, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini sure to make the Azzurri tough to score against.
Andrea Pirlo continues to be the team’s heartbeat in the centre of the park and gets better with age. The veteran’s range of passing from deep areas will unleash some talented young attackers, while Daniele De Rossi will provide a combative force alongside him.
On paper Italy have a competitive team without setting the world alight, but expect them to be solid, uncomfortable opponents. Traditionally they improve as the tournament progresses and if they get up a head of steam could threaten. As Germany found out in the semi-finals of Euro 2012, Italy are most dangerous as an underdog.
With Spain, Germany and Brazil the favourites for the tournament due to the stellar talent in their squads, Italy or Netherlands will need to do something very special to lift the crown next summer. That said, these historic nations will add spice to the tournament, with their passionate fans sure to contribute to what should be a fantastic event.