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"The tension is rising," Netherlands coach Foppe de Haan said as he looked ahead to the opening game of the UEFA European Under-21 Championship against Israel on Sunday. A year since lifting the trophy in Portugal, De Haan has put the finishing touches on a new-look squad and is anxious to get back down to business. "Things have been going well, but now it's getting really exciting," he said.
The sun beat down on the Jong Oranje as De Haan put his players through a final training session in Langezwaag, a short hop from the Abe Lenstra Stadium which will host Sunday's opener and where De Haan made his name. "That's my stadium, I built it with my own hands," the long-time SC Heerenveen coach joked. Known simply as Foppe in these parts, the Fryslan native was born just 18km from the stadium and is very much at home here. Being hosts and holders, De Haan said, would not put undue pressure on his side. "It's very nice to play here and it's a big challenge," he said. "Now it's up to us."
The Netherlands lost their first match this time last year, and De Haan insisted he would not be making the same mistake twice after "underestimating" Ukraine in Portugal. He has studied Israel closely, claiming they "are like a swarm of bees who make it very hard for opponents to develop their game". Unusually, the coach has kept his team a closely guarded secret. With only six of the squad from Portugal among his selection now, his starting XI will have a very different look from that which defeated Ukraine in the final in Porto last June.
Captain Ron Vlaar and playmaker Ismaïl Aissati are likely to be the sole survivors, but with a fully fit group to choose from, De Haan was giving nothing away. "I'm always pretty open but we know Israel have watched us carefully so we had a closed training session this week to keep something for ourselves. That's what we learned from the last European Championship, Ukraine knew exactly how we played which helped them beat us in our first match." Centre-back Ryan Donk is the only question mark for De Haan after spending time with his family yesterday for personal reasons.
The Netherlands start as favourites, but Israel have already pulled off one major upset by knocking out France in the play-offs and coach Guy Levy was confident they could repeat the feat in this their first game in an U21 championship. "I have a unique bunch of players who I can trust 200 per cent," he said. "Our heart and togetherness brought us here. We have very good players, technical and smart, but we're better as a team than we are individually. I think our heart will lead us to success."
'Love, fun and joy'
Levy may well be without midfielder Aviram Baruchyan (ankle) and forward Amit Ben Shushan (hamstring), but he was grateful just to have a full complement of players. Six of his charges were involved in last week's UEFA EURO 2008™ qualifiers and not until Saturday were Barak Itzhaki and Toto Tamuz, both of whom scored for the senior Israel team last week, able to train with the rest. "It's not the best way to start the competition but we haven't time to worry about that because we have a very tough game ahead of us," Levy said. "
This side was built on love, fun and joy for the game. That's what got us here and that's how we're going to continue."
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