DURBAN, June 27- The Netherlands play surprise package Slovakia in a round of 16 match here on Monday, wary of a team spirit that saw the unheralded side beat defending World Cup champions Italy in the group stage.
The Dutch, two-time finalists in the 1974 and 1978 World Cups, were themselves unbeaten in the group phase, beating Denmark 2-0, Japan 1-0 and Cameroon 2-1.
World Cup debutants Slovakia drew 1-1 with New Zealand and lost 2-0 to group-winners Paraguay before trumping Italy 3-2 to spectacularly claim their runners-up spot.
"Slovakia will be tough," Dutch striker Robin van Persie warned. "They showed really good spirt and hung in there against Italy and it was a great result for their country.
"So far, it’s looking good for us, but we can still improve on bits and pieces."
Dutch coach Bert van Marwijk added: "This is an opponent we must not underestimate. We cannot be nonchalant."
Although the Dutch notched up three group phase wins — a feat matched only by Argentina, van Marwijk warned they could ill afford to let teams back into games through sloppy play, as was the case against Cameroon.
"That period of negligence we had, we cannot afford that again," he said. "It’s a bit of a lesson for the next match."
Slovakian striker Robert Vittek, who scored two goals in his team’s win over Italy, said that the game against the Azzurri had "really pushed the limits of Slovak football".
"Beforehand we couldn’t have dreamt about this, I’m so happy, we showed everything that we’re capable of in achieving this," he said.
"The Dutch are clear favourites but we will try to give them a hard time. As newcomers we have nothing to lose."
The Netherlands were boosted by the return against Cameroon of star winger Arjen Robben, who made his South African World Cup bow as a late substitute after missing their opening two matches with a hamstring injury.
If there were any lingering doubts over his injury, Robben erased them in emphatic style with a trademark contribution to the Netherlands’ winning goal, slamming a shot against the post with Klaas-Jan Huntelaar burying the rebound.
"We made it clear at the start that we would be taking this tournament one challenge at a time, and now we will focus on Slovakia and Slovakia alone," said Robben. "I’m already looking forward to it."
The Bayern Munich player will likely come off the bench for a half.
The winner of the second round match at the Moses Mabhida Stadium here face a tough quarter-final against the winner of the Brazil v Chile play-off.
KEY TO MATCH
Arjen Robben v Marek Hamsik
After Arjen Robben’s delightful cameo against Cameroon, the Bayern Munich winger stands a good chance of playing a significant chunk of the game against Slovakia, who conceded five goals in their group phase. Slovakia’s captain and playmaker Marek Hamsik pulls the strings for his team in midfield and will have to get them moving forward as they did in their shock victory over defending champions Italy to make any inroads into a Dutch team oozing class up front.