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Soccer-World-Netherlands face early reminder of bitter disappointment

Reuters

AMSTERDAM, April 28 (Reuters) - Netherlands will be presented with an immediate reminder of the heartbreak they suffered four years ago when they start the World Cup with a rematch of the 2010 final against Spain in Salvador on the opening day of the tournament.

The match in north-east Brazil on June 13, is a heavyweight start to the campaign for the Dutch who have many key elements left in their team from the extra-time defeat in Johannesburg four years ago, but also a clutch of younger and less experienced players.

The key encounter in Group B for the Dutch could come after they have played Spain and Australia, in Sao Paulo on June 23, when they meet Chile at the conclusion of a tough opening round.

Coach Louis van Gaal, who took over after a disappointing Euro 2012 in which the 'Oranje' lost all their group matches, has made a point of introducing younger talent, capping 25 new players in his 19 games in charge since August 2012.

But the likes of Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben and Rafael van der Vaart have remained a constant under Van Gaal, who is in his second spell in charge.

The Dutch were the first of the European countries to qualify for the finals in Brazil, beating Italy by 20 minutes on the night of September 10, steaming through a relatively easy preliminary group by winning their first six matches and eventually dropping just two points in 10 games.

The highlight was an 8-1 thumping of Hungary in Amsterdam last October, which included a hat-trick from Van Persie. He scored 11 times in the 2014 qualifiers.

A positive for the Dutch is that the Manchester United striker is likely to be relatively fresh after a lengthy hiatus at club level, during which he was sidelined with a knee injury.

But Robben, another key player, will likely need nurturing after a long season with Bayern Munich. His participation in the last World Cup was touch and go after he suffered a hamstring injury on the eve of the finals.

The Dutch will also be looking for inspiration from Van der Vaart, who has had a disappointing Bundesliga season with struggling Hamburg, and Turkey-based Wesley Sneijder. Van Gaal dropped Sneijder as captain last year after insisting he needed to be fitter to command a place in the Dutch side.

MIDFIELD ENFORCER

Nigel de Jong has returned from injury as a midfield enforcer, a prospect that might fill some of the Spaniards with dread before the opening group match at the Arena Fonte Nova.

The AC Milan player was fortunate to stay on the pitch in the 2010 final after a kung-fu kick on Xabi Alonso elicited only a yellow card from referee Howard Webb.

Kevin Strootman, rated by Van Gaal as their best player in the 2014 preliminaries, misses out after recent knee surgery.

Extensive preparations have gone into the Dutch bid to win the World Cup after the bitter disappointment of yet another runners-up berth four years ago, including upgrading facilities at the Flamengo complex they will use as their base.

Looking further back too, the Dutch may take some inspiration from another, ultimately failed attempt to win the World Cup, but one in which they delighted the world.

The last time the World Cup was held in South America, in Argentina in 1978, the Dutch reached the final only to lose 3-1 to the hosts, a fate they also suffered in West Germany in 1974.

Victory in Brazil this time would not only give Van Gaal his greatest prize, but also expunge their unwanted tag of the best country never to be world champions. (Writing by Mark Gleeson; Editing by Robert Woodward)

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