After the tedium of France’s insipid goalless draw with Romania in Zurich earlier in the day had left many viewers wondering quite how Group C had earned the clichéd title of “The Group of Death”, Holland & Italy served up a footballing treat in the balmy evening heat of Berne.
The Dutch went into this game in the unusual position of being underdogs at a major Championships, their coach Marco Van Basten the subject of plenty of criticism- most of it from within his own camp. Clarence Seedorf had already decided that Van Basten’s presence was enough to put him off a European Championships swansong and hot footed it back to Italy, and rumours suggested that Ruud Van Nistelrooy was contemplating a similar move.
Ryan Babel had already been ruled out of the tournament with torn ankle ligaments- strangely, to be replaced by Chelsea flop Khalid Bouhlarouz- and with the papier-mÃ¢ché duo of Arjen Robben & Robin Van Persie struggling for fitness, it is fair to say that Italy were favourites for this clash, especially with Bouhlarouz selected to start in a defence that also featured Blackburn’s less than commanding Andre Ooijer.
The Italian coach Roberto Donadoni himself has come in for his fair share of criticism over a perceived lack of imagination and ambition in team selections, and his selection of Massimo Ambrosini, Andrea Pirlo & Gennaro Gattuso, the trio who had toiled as Milan missed out on a Champions League place and were dumped out of the Champions League by a youthful Arsenal in the first knockout round, raised a few eyebrows.
As did his selection of 35 year-old Christian Panucci, a friend of Donadoni’s from his playing days at Milan, ahead of the swashbuckling Fabio Grosso. And indeed, with Holland boasting plenty of fleet-footed attacking options on the left, it was soon to be exposed as a serious blunder.
From the first whistle there was a pleasing tempo to the game, and inside the first couple of minutes Italy had seen a couple of decent openings wasted as first Toto Di Natale of Udinese escaped the attentions of Joris Mathijsen down the right but hurried his cross and was unable to pick out strike partner Luca Toni, before Toni himself misguided a header wide from Gattuso’s cross with Di Natale well placed for a knock-down.
Pirlo had started in imperious form, manoeuvring his way round midfield with his familiar poise and passing ability, but in Nigel De Jong & the giant Orlando Engelaar, Holland possess two midfielders designed to stop players from playing, and the Dutch began to assert their authority.
It was Liverpool’s Dirk Kuyt who created their first clear opening, releasing Van Nistelrooy with a shrewd pass in behind the less than inspiring Marco Materazzi, but the Dutchman stumbled as he attempted to round Gigi Buffon- to his credit, Van Nistelrooy did not look for a penalty as some might have done- and the chance was snuffed out by Andrea Barzagli. Wesley Sneijder was the next to threaten, hooking a left foot volley over the bar after good link-up with his old Ajax chum Rafael Van der Vaart, before his vicious inswinging free kick was glanced behind by Materazzi, with Van Nistelrooy licking his lips behind him.
The pressure was mounting, and indeed it paid off in the 26th minute as Buffon failed to deal effectively with Van der Vaart’s over-hit free kick from the right, allowing Mathijsen to tee up Sneijder, whose driven low cross-shot was turned home from six yards by the suspiciously offside-looking Van Nistelrooy. Indeed television replays appeared to show the Real Madrid man was about a yard off, but with Panucci off the pitch having collided with Buffon, debate has raged on about whether he should have been deemed active when making the call.
Either way, the goal stood, with Toni booked for his angry protestations in the aftermath. And the Bayern Munich striker’s mood would not have improved five minutes later when he saw his touch from Pirlo’s inswinging corner cleared off the line by Gio Van Bronckhorst, who then proceeded to race up the left onto Van der Vaart’s sweeping pass, before clipping a brilliant deep cross onto the head of Kuyt, who astutely nodded the ball down for the fast-arriving Sneijder to hook the ball past Buffon at the near post.
It was a picture-book goal, from one end to the other in a matter of seconds, and it knocked the stuffing out of Italy. And indeed Van Nistelrooy could have buried them before half time when he was sent clear by Van der Vaart, but this time Buffon’s legs denied him a second goal. Donadoni and his team greeted the half time whistle with something of a sigh of relief, a chance to regroup and get some organisation going.
With both sides unchanged for the second half, surprisingly in Italy’s case, the Dutch started the second half as confidently as they had ended the first, with Gattuso, Ambrosini & Mauro Camoranesi left chasing shadows at times as they struggled to cope with the energy and balance of Sneijder, Van der Vaart and the impressive Engelaar. Gianluca Zambrotta did muster a half chance, wriggling free of Kuyt on the left edge of the Dutch penalty area, but his cross-cum-shot was wild and flashed well wide.
Donadoni belatedly introduced Grosso ten minutes into the second half, and then Alessandro Del Piero nine minutes later, and at least the Italians started to threaten again, Pirlo curling an ambitious free kick into the side-netting as he attempted to catch out Van der Sar, and Del Piero forcing a smart save from Van der Sar low to his left, before also curling a 20 yard shot over the bar.
The Dutch side’s tempo was not as intense as it had been in the first half, and Italy sensed that a goal was coming, Toni wasted the best chance, hooking tamely over the bar after some excellent control to bring down a superb lofted pass from Donadoni’s final throw of the dice, Antonio Cassano. Grosso then saw Van der Sar block his left foot strike after a marauding run from the left, with the Dutch defenders nervously clearing the rebound.
But just as they had done in the first half, Holland responded to an Italian near miss with a blistering counter attack of their own to finish the game off, Pirlo seeing his free kick clawed away at full stretch by Van der Sar, before a switch of play allowed Sneijder to release the tireless Van Bronckhorst bursting through the inside left channel, the former Arsenal man laid the ball into the path of Kuyt, who saw Buffon save his initial effort, but who had the presence of mind to collect the loose ball, clip in a perfect centre and watch as Van Bronckhorst’s downward header beat both Buffon, and the desperate lunge of Zambrotta on the line for 3-0.
It was a stunning break, one which completely finished off the Italians, and indeed they might have suffered a complete hammering in the final few minutes, with Kuyt’s replacement Ibrahim Afellay arrowing a fierce angled right foot strike off the top of the bar with Buffon grasping thin air, and fellow sub Van Persie going close with a left foot strike after tip-toeing past a couple of half-hearted challenges in the box. It just wasn’t Italy’s night, as summed up in the final moments as Toni’s strong hold-up play created a shooting chance for Ambrosini, but his 12 yard shot struck the midriff of John Heitinga and trickled out for a corner.
A chastening lesson for the World Champions, their first defeat to Holland since 1978, and Donadoni’s men have plenty of work to do to reach the Quarter Finals. They face Romania next in Zurich on Friday, before what looks like it will be a winner-takes-all clash with France in the same stadium four days later, and Donadoni will need to address some of the problems raised by this defeat.
Toni & Di Natale cut forlorn figures as they toiled up front with minimal support from the midfield- hardly surprising considering Camoranesi had an off-night and Gattuso & Ambrosini between them possess the attacking threat of an unloaded pea-shooter- whilst the Cannavaro-free backline looked anything but Italian, Barzagli was caught out on numerous occasions, whilst the fact that Materazzi looked short of pace against Van Nistelrooy does not bode well for future clashes with Adrian Mutu, Thierry Henry and Karim Benzema. The performances of Grosso, Zambrotta & Pirlo were promising, but at the end of the day, you can’t have six or seven players playing below their best and expect to win. Just ask England.
For the Dutch it was a glorious reminder that they are the nation who coined the phrase “Total Football”, the pre-tournament sneers about the “End of an era” for Dutch football look vastly premature. The majestic Sneijder turned in a man of the match performance on his 24th birthday, ably assisted by Van der Vaart and the limitless work of Van Bronckhorst on the left and Kuyt on the right, with Engelaar and De Jong performing the less glamorous tasks superbly, and their defence, pinpointed by many as the main chink in their armour, stood firm- with even Bouhlarouz and Ooijer looking like international footballers.
They face France on Friday night knowing that a draw would all but seal their progress to the Quarter Finals, but having seen Raymond Domenech’s side toil against Romania earlier in the day, they must fancy their chances of picking up another three points. Especially if their finishing is as clinical as it was here, and with Marco Van Basten in charge, would you expect anything less?