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Netherlands win but fall flat again at World Cup

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Bursting with goals and confidence, the Dutch entered the World Cup showing signs they might finally win it all for the first time.

Despite a 2-0 opening victory over Denmark on Monday, there is plenty of evidence the Netherlands' bid may again be unsuccessful.

Watched from the crowd by Dutch great Johan Cruyff, the latest crop of World Cup hopefuls made an uninspiring start in the opening Group E match, needing an own goal and a late tap-in to beat the injury-plagued Danes at Soccer City.

While the victory appeared routine, the team failed to click into its fluid attacking style and the absence of star winger Arjen Robben was no excuse for a flat performance that disappointed fans waiting for a Dutch soccer treat.

Having beaten Ghana 4-1 and Hungary 6-1 in warm-up matches, the Dutch can't complain of a lack of preparation or confidence.

Maybe it was what a case of what so often happens to Dutch teams at the World Cup — when they get to soccer's biggest event, they discover they have left their best at home.

"There was a bit of tension with the players," coach Bert van Marwijk explained. "We wanted to play beautiful football but we (kept losing) the ball.

"From time to time, you could see how good we can be. Everything has to dovetail, everything has to fit. You need depth in your play or you will never reach the target."

The Dutch have been striving to reach this particular target for more than 36 years — thrilling soccer fans with eye-catching play one day, disappointing them with failure the next.

From the Cruyff era to the present day, the Dutch philosophy has been to let everyone in front of the goalkeeper use the ball, resulting in opponents struggling to gain possession.

Throughout the decades, Cruyff, Johan Neeskens, Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten, Frank Rijkaard and Dennis Bergkamp have been at the forefront of a style known as "total football."

While their main rivals — Brazil, Italy, Argentina, France and the Germans — have won the World Cup, all the Dutch have to show for their entertaining style is one European Championship title, in 1988.

They finished as World Cup runner-up in 1974 and '78 but then failed to qualify for the next two tournaments.

Like those in the past, this team appears to have all the ingredients.

The midfield is well organized. Defensive midfielder Nigel de Jong plays behind Mark van Bommel and Rafael Van der Vaart. Adept with either foot, Wesley Sneijder usually provides the defense-splitting ball for the lone striker, notably Robin van Persie.

It is a simple, effective way to play and often ends with a moment of genius.

Despite Monday's flat performance, Eljero Elia could be the latest World Cup surprise.

While Van Persie is the main danger in attack with his ability to run past defenders, shoot and head powerfully, he is a known quantity. So is the injured Robben, whose main trick is to cut inside from the right and deliver powerful left-footed strikes at goal.

Elia, who scored a memorable solo goal against Hungary nine days ago, can create openings all on his own.

The 23-year-old Hamburg forward enjoys running at defenders toward goal. He almost scored Monday when he beat a defender and rolled a shot against the post. At least he had the satisfaction of seeing teammate Dirk Kuyt tap the ball into an empty net.

That 85th-minute goal sealed the victory after Denmark had an given up a fluke own goal in the 46th. Simon Poulsen's attempted clearance from Van Persie's cross bounced off teammate Daniel Agger and into the net.

It was the sort of break that often spurs the lucky team to lift its game.

Not this Dutch team.

"We are good at playing football, we know that. We are very creative," Van Marwijk said. "I've said about 100,000 times that sometimes we're arrogant. When we play too well we may become too arrogant and that can backfire."