Holland are the textbook underachievers. Their class and quality of football is undeniable, but they are not known for their ability to win when it really matters. They lost back-to-back World Cup finals in 1974 and 1978, and despite a really strong qualifying performance, no one rates their chances of lifting the Cup in Berlin (or even going beyond the quarter finals).
Holland take on Serbia & Montenegro today – another team that have impressed in qualifying (they conceded a single goal throughout the World Cup qualifiers). Being stuck in the Group of Death has not helped their case, and they are slated to be the fourth team in Group C.
Two United players are taking part in the first match – Edwin van der Sar and Ruud van Nistelrooy for Holland. Nemanja Vidic misses out for Serbia due to a suspension – a pity really as it would have been interesting to see the newcomer go up against the out-of-favor striker.
The second match (Mexico vs Iran) will be an excellent opportunity to determine if Mexico can replicate their form from last year, when they surprised everyone at the Confederations Cup. Iran are unlikely to be pushovers though, and this will be a tough, physical match. Mexico should win, with the top two posts in Group D a tossup between them and Portugal.
Portugal’s strong showing in Euro 2004 was both a result of their coach (Luiz Felipe Scolari, the man who took Brazil to their 2002 World Cup victory and turned down England’s coaching job this summer) and a new crop of talented players. Their team has matured and they will press hard to make their advantage count against Angola who will have to dig deep to defend against the likes of United winger Cristiano Ronaldo. Scolari, by the way, has been offered an extension to his contract with Portugal that would see him take them to Euro 2008. However, this contract might be subject to Portugal’s performance in the 2006 World Cup.
In total, three United players on show, one of them missing out and the three dark horses of the World Cup playing their opening matches. The fourth ‘dark horse’, Spain, play Ukraine on Wednesday. There’s a long way to go, and today’s matches are just to be enjoyed, not to base predictions on.