By Philip O’Connor
(Reuters) – Lieke Martens and her Netherlands team mates will be among the favourites to lift the World Cup in France, but their struggles since being crowned European champions on home soil in 2017 show how quickly the game is developing.
A little over a year after crushing Denmark in the final to win the Euros, the Dutch had to beat the Danes and then Switzerland in the playoffs after missing out on automatic qualification for next month’s World Cup.
Norway defeated the Netherlands 2-1 in their last UEFA Group 3 qualifying game to reach the finals, but it was a 0-0 home draw early in qualification against a dogged Ireland side that really cost the Dutch.
Having steamrollered teams with their pace and passing at the Euros, all of a sudden the Dutch had to deal with mid-ranked sides like the Irish massing their ranks in defence and ready to hit them on the counter.
But if there is one thing the Dutch do not lack it is firepower, with striker Vivianne Miedema scoring five goals in qualifying, having netted 22 in 19 games for her club Arsenal as they won the English Women’s Super League this season.
Martens will be deployed on the left so she can cut in from the wing and shoot on her stronger right foot, and midfielder Sherida Spitse is capable of scoring with thunderous shots from distance and more subtle efforts from set pieces.
Despite their success at the European Championship, most bookmakers have the Dutch in fifth spot behind the United States, France, Germany and England as likely World Cup winners.
“We want to be underdogs and we are telling everybody that because this is only our second World Cup,” defender Kika van Es told FIFA in a recent interview.
“The World Cup is so different to the Euros, being world champions will be very difficult, so we see ourselves as underdogs, which is better for us.”
The Dutch open their Group E campaign against New Zealand, who have never qualified for the knockout stages of the World Cup, on June 11 before going on to meet Cameroon and Canada.
With all of their group games being played within a six-hour drive of Amsterdam, the Dutch are hoping their supporters will make the trip to France.
“For us, we think it’s good that we are playing in the north of France, so a lot of Dutch fans can come and support us. I think it is going to be a great World Cup and a great year,” Van Es said.
(Reporting by Philip O’Connor; Editing by Ken Ferris)