Netherlands’ World Cup qualification still possible as birthday boy Sneijder reunites with Advocaat

Beat Luxembourg by a handsome margin and the Dutch could squeeze into second spot in their Group A if leaders France win in Sweden, who are second, and third-place Bulgaria fail to beat Belarus, writes Ian Hawkey.

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Wesley Sneijder turns 33 on Friday, and will make it a very special birthday by breaking the record for the number of individual caps won by any Dutchman for his national team.

The mercurial midfielder has certainly made a committed effort to have the two milestones coincide.

Sneijder whipped back and forth between his club duties for Galatasaray in Turkey last weekend, and the Netherlands and North Africa to appear in two friendlies the Netherlands played last week, and on Sunday against Morocco and Ivory Coast and thus take his total of caps to 130, equal with the number played by Edwin van der Sar.

“It’s not unusual to get the chance to set a record on your birthday,” explained Sneijder, who was also keen to correct any impression that the frantic dash to collect his most recent pair of appearances – the second via 20 minutes as a substitute – was motivated by his own interests rather than the Netherlands’.

“I always want to represent my country.”

Luckily, there are managers who still feel the same about representing his country, even if the Dutch are in a slump of form, off the pace in World Cup qualifying and still blushing for having missed out entirely on the finals of Euro 2016, a bloated tournament that invited not the usual 16 but 24 countries to France last summer.

Sneijder will be taking orders from the newly-appointed Dick Advocaat for Friday night’s 2018 qualifier against Luxembourg.

That is another neat piece of symmetry: Advocaat gave Sneijder his first Netherlands cap back in 2003.

Like many managers before him, Advocaat has come back for a another stab at making a nation that prides itself on its nurturing of young players, and its original football thinking, punch like a proper heavyweight.

This will be the chunky, sometime caustic Dutchman’s third spell in a job that few occupants seem to try just the once.

Sneijder can count back over his career in the orange jersey as a series of managerial comebacks. He has worked under Louis van Gaal, whose second spell with the Netherlands ended with a respectable World Cup semi-final in 2014.

He has worked under Guus Hiddink, who had taken the team to a World Cup semi-final himself – in 1998 – but who, on returning to the job three years ago, found that he was unable to make a championship-capable team.

Nor was Danny Blind, a younger manager, dismissed after defeat to Bulgaria in March.

Advocaat will be approaching his 71st birthday by the time of the World Cup finals, and speaks confidently of qualifying.

The situation is rescuable. Beat Luxembourg by a handsome margin and the Dutch could squeeze into second spot in their Group A if leaders France win in Sweden, who are second, and third-place Bulgaria fail to beat Belarus.

The best eight runners-up from the nine European qualifying groups go into play-offs for entry to the finals.

Advocaat will rely on some tried-and-trusted performers, like Sneijder, still creative in attacking midfield in his 30s, and Arjen Robben, the Dutch captain, 33 and coming off a fine season with Bayern Munich.

He also hopes to tap into some of the vitality that pushed Ajax to the Europa League final last month.

“Ajax has young players that have not been playing for the Dutch squad,” the Ajax and Netherlands full-back Joel Veltman, told this writer. “For the Dutch team things have been difficult. Now, I think we start at zero again and build it up, with a new trainer, Dick Advocaat.”

Veltman certainly seems to have a fresh wind in his sails.

He scored two goals from defence in last Sunday’s 5-0 friendly trouncing of Ivory Coast, a run-out overseen by assistant coach Fred Grim, pending the official start of Advocaat, who only left his job at Fenerbahce last weekend.

The returning Advocaat certainly brings vast experience.

A brief spell in charge of the UAE national team in 2005 is one of seven national team posts he has filled, including those of Russia and Belgium.

He may not have been first choice for a brittle Netherlands this time around, he acknowledges, but he will approach the task with typical bullishness.

“Maybe other managers did not dare take this on,” he suggested. “But I found it an impossible challenge to turn down.”

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