TOKYO, May 19 – A talented Netherlands squad start as firm favourites in a tight Group E with Japan, Cameroon and Denmark set to fight for second place.A red-hot qualifying campaign saw the Dutch sail through to the finals without dropping a point and coach Bert van Marwijk is happy with the way the draw panned out for his star-sprinkled team.
Big things are expected from the in-form ‘Oranje’, currently ranked four in the world behind Brazil, Spain and Portugal, but Van Marwijk is taking nothing for granted.
"A lot of people will probably think that we will make it to the next round without too much trouble. However, our opponents shouldn’t be underestimated," said the coach, who replaced Marco van Basten after Euro 2008.
The Dutch are making their ninth World Cup appearance, with runner-up spots during their heyday in the 1974 and 1978 tournaments the highlight so far.
But with players like Arjen Robben, Dirk Kuyt, Mark van Bommel and Robin van Persie at his disposal, the pressure is on to finally lift the trophy, although they can be vulnerable at the back.
They must be careful of Denmark, who finished ahead of Portugal, Sweden and Hungary in qualifying, while Japan are tenacious and have made the round of 16 before.
If Holland top the group, their opponent in the next round will be the second placed team in Group H. Italy are expected to come first in that group, while Slovakia, Paraguay and New Zealand will battle for second.
Arsenal youngster Nicklas Bendtner is Denmark’s star man, while players such as Jon Dahl Tomasson, Dennis Rommedahl and Michael Silberbauer are all well respected.
Bendtner believes the Danes can make am impression.
"It’s important that we stay realistic. Of course we’re going there to win the tournament, but having said that, we don’t have the same means as other big countries," he said.
"However, we’ll do our very best. Denmark have produced plenty of upsets in football history, so why not again?"
No African team boasts more experience than Paul Le Guen’s Cameroon, whose appearance in South Africa will be a record sixth for an African nation.
Cameroon can be physically intimidating and will be buoyed by ‘home’ support. They also boast three-time African Footballer of the Year Samuel Eto’o, who rivals Ivorian Didier Drogba as the best striker from the continent.
Japan are three-time Asian champions and carry high hopes into the tournament with former Celtic man Shunsuke Nakamura their talisman.
Despite being mocked for being unrealistic at home, Japan coach Takeshi Okada continues to insist his side can make the semi-finals.
"It will be the fourth World Cup finals for Japan and we are aiming for a top four spot. We don’t intend to change our goal and we continue to aim for a top four spot," he has repeatedly said.
Favourites – The Netherlands
Fancied – Cameroon, Denmark
Underdogs – Japan