Saturday 7 June 2008

Old ties no handicap for Van Basten

Marco van Basten is anticipating a tough encounter with his sometime golf partner Roberto Donadoni as the Netherlands kick-off against Italy on Monday.

Competitive encounter
The reigning world champions are daunting enough opponents for the Dutch in their opening Group C fixture, but the encounter will have an extra edge for the two coaches who were team-mates at AC Milan during their impressive playing careers. The 43-year-old Van Basten has been in touch with the 44-year-old Donadoni since the draw, but their next meeting is likely to be a little more competitive than the occasional round of golf they have played together.

'A true sportsman'
"We have some contact every now and then," said the former AFC Ajax man, who will return to the Amsterdam ArenA as coach after UEFA EURO 2008™. "We played football together, but also played a lot of golf together, and he really is a true sportsman and also a real winner. He did not accept the easiest job by taking over the Italy team as reigning world champions, but he took on the challenge and has done it very well so far – and I think he is a good coach for this team in the position Italy are in right now."

Italian strength
Van Basten rates Italy as "a good footballing side", adding that the Oranje's opponents in Berne "are the world champions for a good reason". Certainly, he is in no doubt that the first game of the tournament will be a tough one, though he can hardly expect an easy ride in the subsequent fixtures against France and Romania. "[Italy] have a lot of experience," he said. "They have made few changes from two years ago, so we can expect a very tough match, as they are a strong team, who play good football and have a lot of experience. It is going to be a huge challenge."

Uncompromising start
However, given the level of performance it takes to make progress at a tournament like UEFA EURO 2008™, Van Basten was not sorry to be up against Donadoni's protégés so early. "The advantage is that from the start you are straight into the tournament, from the first moment you realise it is super important," he said of the tough opening fixture. "We only play three matches in the group, and one is against the world champions and one against the world's second's best team [France], so you have to have focus from the start or you will immediately get knocked out."