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Change more than good for Dutch

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BERN, Switzerland – For a Plan B, Marco Van Basten's new formation doesn't seem to be working out too badly.

Just weeks before the tournament the Holland coach controversially decided to ditch the beloved 4-3-3 that has defined Dutch football for years, in favor of an alternative 4-2-3-1 style aimed at maximizing his attacking weapons.

Van Basten has admitted himself that there were times in the lead-up to Euro 2008 that he second-guessed his choice and considered reverting back.

Now, with his team the bookies' favorites and the darlings of the tournament following two spectacular victories, it almost seems too easy.

Van Basten's defining moment as a player came 20 years ago this summer, when he took Holland to victory in the 1988 European Championships in West Germany.

Even though he enjoyed a sterling career with Ajax and AC Milan before his career was cruelly cut short by injury at the age of 28, it is footage of his magnificent volley in the 1988 final against the Soviet Union that is most fondly remembered by admirers.

Now Van Basten is looking for his special experience as a head coach, in his last tournament before taking over the reins at Ajax and after four years of only moderate achievement by his country's high standards.

Often when a coach announces he is due to leave his job, it can affect team morale, but Van Basten had no magic answer to Holland's form.

"I'm just a very nice man," he smiled. "That's why there are no problems."

Restricted by the demands of a national federation that cherishes an attractive brand of football so dearly that Van Basten is, remarkably, forbidden by the terms of his contract from implementing an ugly style, the coach has somehow added efficiency and steel while retaining all his squad's offensive flair.

By using unsung heroes Orlando Engelaar and Nigel De Jong as the two holding midfielders, Holland swamped Italy in their opening match and cut down the talented French attacking machine Friday night.

The tireless efforts of Engelaar and De Jong allowed rare freedom to attacking midfield trio Rafael Van Der Vaart, Wesley Sneijder and Dirk Kuyt – providing lone striker Ruud Van Nistelrooy with outstanding service.

"Everyone knows their job and is committing to doing their part to help the team," said De Jong, of German Bundesliga side Hamburg. "Of course we are happy with the results so far but there is a long way to go and we must remain focused on what has helped us get here."

Past Dutch campaigns at major tournaments have often fallen apart due to discontent in the ranks. There were fears that internal strife would rear once more when reports surfaced of a pre-Euro 2008 bust-up between Sneijder and Robin Van Persie.

But if there is trouble brewing, then the Dutch are hiding it incredibly well.

So far this looks like a team prepared to work exhaustively for each other, with even Van Nistelrooy often tracking back into deep positions and on one occasion, stunning unsuspecting French star Frank Ribery by nicking the ball off him.

Defenders Khalid Boulahrouz and Giovanni Van Bronckhorst also have shone, but the real X-factor for Van Basten has so far played only 45 minutes at Euro 2008.

Arjen Robben was expected to miss his second game in succession against France with a groin injury, but he was introduced in the second half with his team a goal ahead. By replacing the sturdy Engelaar with attacking dynamo Robben, Van Basten regained full control after a brief French flurry and Holland never looked back.

"Robben is quick and technical and allows us to play deeper up field," Van Basten said. "Sometimes there is a temptation for everyone to crowd the ball, but he gives us the option of moving it quickly and spreading their defense."

Robben's wonderful angled strike, one of the goals of the tournament so far, sucked the life out of France just a minute after Thierry Henry's goal had given it a lifeline.

"Arjen is a great player and he frightens defenses with the way he runs at them," said Robben's Real Madrid teammate Van Nistelrooy. "To be able to have a player like that coming off the bench is huge for us."

Sneijder's drive to cap off the 4-1 victory late kept the marauding army of Dutch fans in fine spirits and booked their ticket to the quarterfinals.

The good-natured Dutch supporters have invaded Switzerland like an orange tidal wave and their enthusiasm is infectious.

Having arrived last week with little more than hope and a thirst for beer, now there is genuine confidence coursing through the fans, Van Basten's squad and an enthralled nation back home.

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