Long before the probability of a quarter-final match between Brazil and Holland became a certainty, two elements threatened to undermine the Dutch challenge. Either discord in the dressing room or dodgy defending seemed a likely cause of elimination. And, four games into the World Cup, Bert van Marwijk, the coach, has to confront one.
Wesley Sneijder, the creative midfielder, has denied that his rift with Robin van Persie, the striker, has been reopened and Van Marwijk discussed the issue in a team meeting. Meanwhile, the other potential problem has not even been an issue. Holland have conceded only two goals, one with the last kick of the game against Slovakia and the other, against Cameroon, in a match after qualification for the last 16 had already been clinched. Their defence is yet to be breached in open play and even in a World Cup characterised by caution, that is noteworthy.
Van Marwijk's appears a team of two halves, with the bill topped by an A-list midfield and attack, plucked from Inter Milan and Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool, and, on the undercard, a B-list defence, drawn from Ajax, Feyenoord, Hamburg and Everton. Gregory van der Wiel, Johnny Heitinga, Joris Mathijsen and Giovanni van Bronckhorst have formed an effective unit so far. They have been granted invaluable assistance, however, by the converts to their cause. If not Holland's two best players, the midfielders Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong have been the two most consistent.
They are the epitome of the selflessness Heitinga spoke about, saying: "If you want to win a big title like the World Cup the most important thing is to be a team, to work for the team and to fight for each other. "It doesn't matter if someone makes a mistake, you have to cover his back and fight for each other. You have to put your ego away and play for the good of the team." The good of the team has required six outfield players focused on defence with only four concentrating on attack. It is not total football and it is reason why Johan Cruyff, the godfather of the Oranje's famed attacking philosophy, said he would not pay to watch this side.
But their back four is protected rigorously. De Jong has missed two minutes of the tournament, Van Bommel none. That they have had only three shots and delivered one cross between them shows how little they have strayed forward. Fifa publishes what are called "heat maps", illustrating the territory occupied by players during the game. The two Dutch anchor men have barely entered the final third in the tournament, spending the majority of it in their own half.
Amid the inevitable comparisons between the arrays of creative talent, this is a match that could be determined by the efficiency of the men anchoring the midfield, Van Bommel and De Jong for the Dutch and the well-drilled duo of Gilberto Silva and Felipe Melo for Brazil. But, whereas the South Americans may possess the best defence in the tournament, it is harder to make the same claim about the Dutch. The versatile Heitinga is the most accomplished. Mathijsen has accumulated 58 caps in six years since debuting, but he has rarely been described as quick.
On the right, Van der Wiel is promising but essentially untried. On the left, Van Bronckhorst, 35, is a rarity, a player who will retire, not just from international football but from the game as a whole after this World Cup. Every game could be his finale. But if it is to be the happiest possible departure, Holland really will have to prove they can defend. firstname.lastname@example.org