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Van Persie's headers bookend dramatic Dutch rise and fall

October 15, 2015 12:05 IST

England's Alastair Cook and Australia's Michael Clarke at the toss

IMAGE: Robin van Persie of the Netherlands heads to score against Spain during their 2014 World Cup Group B match at the Fonte Nova arena in Salvador. Photograph: Michael Dalder/Reuters

When Netherlands striker Robin van Persie put away a spectacular diving header against world champions Spain on a balmy afternoon at last year's World Cup it set them on the way to a 5-1 win and the promise of glory.

The Dutch finished third in Brazil after thumping the dempralised hosts 3-0, having narrowly lost on penalties to Argentina in the semi-finals, and the future looked bright with their fans hoping they could dominate in Europe.

Just over a year later in Amsterdam on Tuesday another Van Persie header bookended an alarming fall from grace when he sent the ball into his own net as the Dutch lost 3-2 at home to the Czech Republic and failed to qualify for Euro 2016.

The drastic decline from bronze in Brazil to being forced to watch the European Championship in France from the sidelines has left the country perplexed and searching for answers. Blame has been apportioned widely, with fingers pointed at those running Dutch football, to a lack of tactical flexibility and the consequences of the steady demise of Dutch competitiveness at club level in European competition.

Wesley Sneijder of the Netherlands reacts after the lost match

IMAGE: Wesley Sneijder of the Netherlands reacts after the lost match against Czech Republic during their Euro 2016 group A qualifying in Amsterdam. Photograph: Toussaint Kluiters/United Photos/Reuters

But it is likely that the real reason for the fall from grace has to do with the loss of form and influence of a quartet of world-class players past the peak of their powers, who the Dutch still placed at the centre of their hopes.

Van Persie, Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Rafael van der Vaart had been the heartbeat of a Netherlands side that finished second and third at the last two World Cups but their influence waned badly in the Euro 2016 qualifiers.

The injured Van der Vaart hardly played, Van Persie seemed to run out of legs and Robben was hurt at a crucial juncture in the campaign. Sneijder, without the requisite support, proved unable to carry the team on his own with a new generation of players around him lacking the needed quality and impact.

Coaching changes did not help their cause either.

Louis van Gaal had always planned to leave after Brazil but his single-mindedness and motivational qualities were not replicated by successor Guus Hiddink, even though he had taken the Netherlands to a World Cup semi-final in 1998.

Robin van Persie of the Netherlands (19) reacts during the UEFA EURO 2016 qualifying Group A match against the Czech Republic at Amsterdam Arena

IMAGE: Robin van Persie of the Netherlands (19) reacts during the UEFA EURO 2016 qualifying Group A match against the Czech Republic at Amsterdam Arena. Photograph: Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

While van Gaal bucked tradition and dispensed with the 4-3-3 formation at last year's World Cup, Hiddink went back to the old "Holland school" approach and promptly lost key qualifiers.

He later resigned with assistant Danny Blind taking over, only to lose three of the last four Group A matches to leave the Dutch fourth behind the Czechs, Iceland and Turkey who qualified automatically as the best third-placed finishers.

"There is a picture emerging now that our team can compete comfortably against strong teams because they can match them in terms of ability skill. But against poorer teams, we don't seem to be able to adapt and build a gameplan," said former captain and coach Johan Cruyff in his newspaper column this week.

The Dutch dropped points against Iceland and Turkey in their Euro 2016 qualifying group as well as the Czechs.

"It shows that the achievement in Brazil was not properly analysed and the lessons not learnt," added Cruyff, who played in the team that finished third at the European Championship in 1976 after losing to the Czechs in the semi-finals.

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