Wednesday, March 5: International Friendly at Stade de France, 8 p.m. GMT/3 p.m. EST
France v Netherlands
Louis van Gaal's Netherlands start 2014 with the short trip to Paris as they take on fellow World Cup hopefuls France.
Holland, currently ranked 10th in the FIFA rankings, are rank outsiders for this summer's tournament, but that will not prevent the optimistic Orange Army from hoping this will finally be their year. France will offer stiff competition, but the Dutch will be confident of overcoming Didier Deschamps' men in Paris.
Performance is paramount in Paris, but van Gaal will also be looking for a positive scoreline. It should be an exciting encounter.
The Road to Rio Starts in Paris
In South Africa, Holland went so close to claiming their first-ever World Cup title before falling at the final hurdle to Andres Iniesta's extra-time winner for Spain.
That final defeat hurt the Dutch and over the bridging four-year period, the Orange Army has endured its fair share of disappointment—most notably the disaster of UEFA Euro 2012 in which they lost all three group games.
However, the Netherlands qualified for Brazil in emphatic style and will be confident as they prepare for the South American tournament. Van Gaal's men dropped just two points as they eased to the finals by topping Group D of the UEFA qualification process with a record of 34 goals scored and just five conceded.
Meanwhile, France struggled to qualification via the play-offs after finishing behind Spain in Group I.
Holland's failure in Ukraine and Poland was largely attributed to disharmony amongst the squad, which coincidentally was infamously the primary reason behind France's terrible World Cup campaign in South Africa. On the face of it at least, van Gaal has repaired the damage caused during the final months of Bert van Marwijk's reign, and the Dutch appear to be united once more.
Faced with the daunting prospect of playing Spain in their opening World Cup fixture on June 13, van Gaal will want to nail down his best XI as soon as possible. The challenge of a very handy France side offers a great chance to do that.
Minor Experimentation Expected in Paris
Whilst van Gaal tries to work out his favoured team, he hasn't shut the door on potential new faces and has called up three debutants for the trip to Paris.
Amongst those is Ajax's Davy Klaassen, the impressive 21-year-old who has been a shining light in the Eredivisie champions' midfield this season and has also returned an impressive eight goals. Alongside him are forwards Quincy Promes and Jean-Paul Boetius, whilst Jeroen Zoet and Karim Rekik will be hopeful of making their first senior appearances also—the latter pairing have previously been selected but are yet to feature on the pitch.
Midfielder Rafael van der Vaart misses the match through injury, so he will not add to his 109 caps just yet, although he will be expected to make the plane for Brazil later this year. However, van Gaal can call upon the experienced talents of Dirk Kuyt (98 caps), Wesley Sneijder (96) and Robin van Persie (81) to help integrate the new faces into the squad.
Overall, it's a strong-looking Dutch squad with most of the big hitters present. There will be a chance for some young blood, particularly at the back, to stake their claims for a World Cup spot, but there won't be the wholesale changes that are sometimes seen in non-competitive matches.
With only 100 days to go until the kick-off, van Gaal doesn't have much time to experiment. Expect small amounts of exploration into different options, but on the whole this is a chance for Holland to work towards the team that will face Spain on June 13.
Key Man: Arjen Robben
If the Netherlands are going to be successful, not only in Paris but subsequently at this summer's World Cup, it is imperative that they utilise winger Arjen Robben to maximum potential.
Ian Hutchison of TVBet.co.uk has already pinpointed Robben's flair and natural tendency to drift in from the right as one of the most mouth-watering prospects for Brazil. The Bayern Munich man could provide the spark needed to defeat France.
Robben, who has 22 goals in 73 matches for the national side, is in the form of his life and has bagged an impressive 18 times for Bayern this term. When firing on all cylinders, the 30-year-old is almost unplayable, and if he turns up in Paris it could be a long night for the ageing Patrice Evra.
France's Franck Ribery has been touted as the best winger at Bayern, but in the most important games it has been Robben who has stepped into the spotlight. The Dutchman has another chance to outshine his club team-mate in Paris.
France have named a pretty strong side for this fixture too, with the likes of Paul Pogba, Karim Benzema and Ribery all set to feature.
Deschamps' side are pretty strong at home, winning each of their last three fixtures in France. However, both Spain and Germany claimed victory in Paris last year, and Holland will be confident of following suit.
Holland won the last meeting, a Euro 2008 group game, in emphatic style with a 4-1 score. A repeat of that trouncing seems unlikely, but the travelling support will still fancy their chances of a win.
The attacking talent on display should make this a thrilling spectacle. However, Netherlands are a far more consistent outfit, and they might just sneak this by the odd goal.
France 2-3 Netherlands.
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