For a moment, in the final seconds, a glimmer of hope glimmered, but the imposed chance was not spent on substitute Denzel Dumfries. No, this was not the beginning Louis van Gaal had in mind. With the draw (1-1) against Norway in Oslo, during his much-discussed return as national coach, the Orange squad maneuvered itself into a precarious position on Wednesday evening. The World Cup in Qatar, at the end of next year, is not yet out of sight, but the expensive loss of points in the Ullevaal Stadium can be fatal for the Orange when drawing up the final balance in group G.
Best news comes from Turkey
The best news for the Dutch national team this evening did not come from Oslo, but from Turkey, where the direct competitor lost even more expensive points in the final minutes, at home against Montenegro. That means a huge windfall for the Orange squad, which will play against Montenegro (in Eindhoven) on Saturday and Turkey (in Amsterdam) next Tuesday. But the team cannot afford any more mistakes. Because earlier in the qualifying tournament, the Orange squad, still under national coach Frank de Boer, suffered considerable damage in Turkey, where there was no chance in March (4-2). The Turks then won easily ‘away’ from Norway (0-3, in Malaga), before a surprising draw at home against Latvia (3-3). Only the group winner is directly qualified for the World Cup. For the number two in the group there is a path full of stings and traps to Qatar.
The teams of Norway and the Netherlands differ from each other like night and day, but there was little to notice in the Ullevaal Stadium in Oslo. Yes, Norway has a world-class striker in Erling Haaland (Borussia Dortmund), but the rest of the roster mainly consists of players who earn their living at clubs in the Norwegian Eliteserien or at modest European clubs. The Orange squad has the luxury of being able to draw from players on the payroll of top European clubs such as Paris St. Germain, FC Barcelona, Liverpool, Manchester City and Internazionale.
The Netherlands had most of the ball in the first half, but the aggressively playing Norwegians had the best chances. In particular, Haaland, widely identified as the greatest danger on the Norwegian side, got exactly what Van Gaal had wanted to avoid. The young star player appeared three times within the first twenty minutes in front of the goal of debuting Feyenoord keeper Justin Bijlow. The third attempt was a hit: 1-0 for the Norwegians, and that was deserved.
The Netherlands attacked, but were sloppy and could not find any holes in the red Norwegian wall. Until, fifteen minutes after the opening goal, Davy Klaassen was in exactly the right place with a half-finished cross from Georginio Wijnaldum (1-1).
After the break, the game was the same: the Netherlands had the ball, but they were hardly threatening. And again the best chance was for the life-threatening Haaland, from a lightning fast counter after more than an hour of play. This time, his shot hit the inside of the post, well out of Bijlow’s reach. Orange continued to attack, but did so more and more dutifully, as the energy slowly drained away.
Players, fans and other followers had eagerly looked forward to Van Gaal’s return to the Orange bench after he was appointed as Frank de Boer’s successor in mid-August. He resigned at the end of June after a disappointing European Championship that had ended with an early elimination by the Czech Republic – and a new disillusionment in his coaching career.
The Orange squad seemed to have gained more flair and confidence with the arrival of Van Gaal, but a lot went wrong on the field on Wednesday evening. With the loss of points in Oslo, Van Gaal personally maintained a negative tradition: he had not managed to win his first international match in his first two terms (2000-2002 and 2012-2014).
As if he sensed it, Van Gaal emphatically built in a reservation in his presentation about the assignment he had received from the KNVB. He even called it “a big gamble.” Van Gaal underlined how short the period would be in which he could prepare his players for the resumption of the duel in Oslo. “A day and a half,” he repeated several times. And that is far too short, for the “process trainer” he is in his eyes.
It will indeed have to be much better in the coming duels, if the Orange wants to keep an eye on the final tournament.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of September 2, 2021