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Dutch hope to avoid past World Cup mistakes

Photo by Daniel Kay

Photo by Daniel Kay

JOHANNESBURG -- One game away from a World Cup final, the Dutch hope their notorious tendency to self-destruct doesn't come back to haunt them.

After five World Cup wins in a row, including a memorable 2-1 quarterfinal victory over five-time champion Brazil, the Dutch have an impressive record and are strong favorites to beat Uruguay in Cape Town on Tuesday.

But the team is well short of its best form, and coach Bert van Marwijk says the Dutch have a history of thinking too far ahead.

"We have witnessed it before in the past," he said. "Think about two years ago in Austria and Switzerland. We beat Italy and France and everybody already thought we would become European champions.

"But we didn't even survive the quarterfinals because we thought that we were already there. That's what I've tried to make clear, that this has to be different. Until now, the players have shown that they've picked that up very well, but this will be another important test."

The Dutch were boosted Sunday when main striker Robin van Persie was declared fit to play against the Uruguayans after a scan revealed his left elbow injury was not as bad as first feared.

With defender Joris Mathijsen also available again after a knee problem, the Dutch no longer have any injury worries, even though midfielder Nigel de Jong and defender Gregory van der Wiel are out of the game with suspensions.

"Everybody else is fit and available," said Dutch team spokeswoman Monique Kessels. "Van Persie trained but not with the group so that he did not have any physical contact with the other players. Mathijsen also trained on his own, but later joined in with the others."

The encouraging injury news allows Van Marwijk to maintain his policy of making as few changes as possible to a team with an impressive streak. The Dutch are unbeaten in 24 games going back to a 2-1 exhibition loss at home to Australia in September 2008. That defeat happened when they played the entire second half with 10 men after goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg was sent off for a foul.

Heading into this World Cup, they outplayed Ghana 4-1 and routed Hungary 6-1 in warmup games.

But they have not repeated that sparkling soccer in South Africa despite the consistent results, and Van Marwijk is not letting his players assume they are going to beat underdog Uruguay and reach the final.

The Dutch have gained a reputation of being unable to stay strong all the way through competitions, losing in two World Cup finals in the 1970s when they played arguably the best soccer around. Since winning the European Championship in 1988 for their only international success, they have reached three semifinals and two quarterfinals.

Now they have a golden chance to challenge for the World Cup again, facing an Uruguay team that came into the tournament as a 100-1 shot. The South Americans also come off a strength-sapping quarterfinal against Ghana that went to a penalty kicks shootout after a 1-1 draw in 120 minutes play.

The Uruguayans wouldn't be here at all if Ghana striker Asamoah Gyan hadn't hit the crossbar with a penalty kick in the last seconds of extra time.

But Van Marwijk has labeled Uruguay as "fighters and survivors," not qualities traditionally associated with Dutch teams. Dutch confidence can be fragile if things don't go well on the field. If they struggle to break down Uruguay's well-organized midfield and defense at Green Point Stadium, there could be the sort of issues that have damaged Dutch teams of the past.