DOHA: The confident Dutch claims to be serious World Cup contenders will face an early test on Monday when they open their Group A campaign against African champions Senegal, which is reeling from the shock of losing its talisman.
The absence of Sadio Mane, ruled out of the tournament with a knee injury, could be a catastrophic blow to Senegal’s hopes of breaking new ground for Africa in the tournament, but they are still expected to test their opponents at Al Thumama Stadium. from Doha.
Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal has been confidently predicting that his team has the ability to go all the way in Qatar, eventually winning the World Cup after losing three previous finals.
“We don’t have the best players in the world on our team, but I believe in team building and tactics, and we have players who can execute the coach’s tactical plan,” he said this week, “and we can get all the way to the final”.
The wily 71-year-old led the Netherlands to third place at the World Cup in Brazil eight years ago and since returning to work last year, he has led the team to a 15-match unbeaten run.
But whether they can live up to their coach’s belief and get off to a positive start on Monday remains to be seen, given that key elements of the Dutch team have struggled with injury and form this season.
Captain Virgil van Dijk has been a shadow of the player once heralded as one of the best defenders in the world, while Frenkie de Jong and Memphis Depay have struggled with nagging injuries at Barcelona.
These problems, however, pale in comparison to the blow Senegal suffered at the loss of Mane, who injured his knee playing for Bayern Munich on November 8 and, after days of speculation, was finally ruled out on Thursday.
It will be a major psychological blow to a team that Mane propelled to Africa Cup of Nations success earlier in the year and then kicked the winning penalty kick as they edged out Egypt in a post-match penalty shoot-out for a place in the World Cup. finals
Senegal is considered the best hope for African success in Qatar after a terrible tournament for the continent in Russia four years ago, where all five representatives failed to get past the first round.
They are one of only three African countries to have previously reached the World Cup quarterfinals, which Senegal achieved 20 years ago. Coach Aliou Cissé wants his players to believe they can go that far, or even further, even if Mane is gone.
“That’s the kind of confidence I want my players to have. I want them to tell themselves that if France can win, why can’t we?” he said.