Netherlands already had little reason to be optimistic when the group stage draw for the 2014 World Cup paired it with reigning champions Spain and dark horses Chile. But any hope Louis Van Gaal may have still had of challenging the elite in Brazil has all but died with the news that influential midfielder Kevin Strootman has been ruled out of the tournament after suffering cruciate ligament damage during Roma's weekend defeat to Napoli.
Strootman may not stand out technically and aesthetically like a Wesley Sneijder or Rafael van der Vaart, but the fact that Van Gaal had declared the 24-year-old as one of his three World Cup ‘untouchables’ – alongside Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben – says a lot about his status with Oranje.
"Nobody is untouchable or guaranteed a place in the team except Robben, Van Persie and Strootman," Van Gaal said last year. "They are in a special position. The others will all have to proof themselves."
While Sneijder and Van der Vaart are approaching the end of their careers, Strootman has been moving in the opposite direction and has developed into one of the most sought-after midfielders in the game in recent years.
Ever since Netherlands’ disastrous Euro 2012 campaign, Strootman has been instrumental for Holland and featured in nine out of Oranje’s 10 World Cup qualifiers as it comfortably booked their ticket to Brazil. Strootman even became Netherlands’ youngest captain since 1907 when he wore the armband, aged 22, in his side’s win over Andorra back in October 2012.
The former PSV star is one of only a few Dutch players to ply his trade at a big club in one of Europe’s major leagues and his mental and physical qualities are almost irreplaceable. This season, he has been key in turning serial underachievers Roma into a Serie A force, with the Giallorossi currently second in the table.
Despite his tender age, the left-footed midfielder already has plenty of experience - while his energy and dynamism mean he contributes plenty in both attack and defense. Strootman is never shy to put in a tackle and is one of Europe's best ball-winners, but he’s equally comfortable in possession with his pinpoint passing and impressive vision.
Two players who could potentially feature in a similar role for Holland are Norwich City’s Leroy Fer and Chelsea’s Marco van Ginkel, but the former has also just been ruled out for an estimated two months – and is nowhere near the level of Strootman anyway - while the latter is still recovering from a long-term knee injury and has hardly featured this season.
It’s therefore fair to say that Holland is in deep trouble just three months before the kickoff of this summer’s World Cup. Its chances of bettering its final appearance in South Africa four years ago already looked slim, now it is impossible.
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