There is a common football cliche, which I refuse to utilise here, that has never been so appropriately applied as it would be to last night’s match between Holland and France. Suffice to say that the football that took place after half-time was unrecognisable from that which had done so beforehand. I had a couple of friends over to watch the game, and both left with terrified haste at half-time, as if feeling threatened that I would use force in order to ensure that they stayed the distance, having had to suffer the full horror of the first 45 minutes.
In short, the first half lived up to my expectations of this game, the second lived up to everyone else’s. As far as ensuring a spectacle was concerned, the game received the worst possible start – an early goal for the Dutch. Kuyt headed in a corner aided by questionable French marking, and Holland had exactly what they wanted, namely an excuse to go on the defensive. So the scene was set for Euro 2008’s worst 45 minutes so far, the only previous contender having also involved the French.
Commentators often makes excuses for bigger sides when the game is poor, referring to the game as ‘tactical’ or claiming that the sides ‘are cancelling each other out’. John Motson last night remarked that the first half had become a “tough battle in the midfield”, which is another one. This wasn’t a case of the sides’ tactics negating each other, they were just rubbish. After the 9th minute goal, the first period became a lamentable exhibition of dreadfully misplaced forward passes, niggling fouls, lazy non-movement, and poor decision-making. Holland went into extreme safety-first mode, often working the ball back to Van Der Sar from deep inside the French half. The BBC studio appeared to have been shown another game as Alan Hansen claimed to have enjoyed the first half, which I can only put down to a lack of defensive errors.
When the teams returned for the second half, and I found myself a lone spectator in my front room once again, it was as if UEFA had exchanged the two sides for twenty-two virtual reality replicas, programmed to play properly whilst there were some viewers left. Seriously, the transformation was down to the French, though you have to wonder where they got the inspiration from, as I can’t imagine too many players responding to the half-time reassurance that “it’ll be ok lads, no problem, it’s quite clear that Venus is entering the Moon’s third quarter, you can’t lose!”.
Whatever the reason, France were awake at last, and the game became more inkeeping with the tournament, as the Dutch began to revel in the opportunities offered to them by the more expansive French game. All of a sudden, the level was raised, and incisive passing movements began to cut through defences at either end. France created clearcut opportunities for the first time in the competition, but unfortunately for them they all fell to Thierry Henry, who looks a shadow of his former self after a season warming Barcelona’s bench/treatment table. Henry spurned chances he would have gobbled up in an Arsenal shirt, and inevitably France left themselves exposed to the Dutch rapid response service, enhanced greatly by the introduction of the flying machine Robben.
Robben got clear down the left, streaked clear, and laid on a second for fellow sub Van Persie. This was, thankfully, the signal for the two sides to forget themselves completely and launch into all out attack. The French though, had left it too late. They quickly reduced their arrears thanks to a deft finish from Henry, but within seconds had the stuffing knocked out of them again, as Robben took advantage of lazy defending by Thuram to squeeze one in from an impossible angle. Sneijder plopped a great big cherry on top of it all in injury time, with a sensational fourth. France were deservedly thrashed, deservedly because they couldn’t be bothered taking part until one and a half games had elapsed.
I still think Holland have a little to prove, they haven’t been put under any pressure whilst the score has been level, their back-four looks vulnerable, and their infamous temperament will be put fully to the test should they fall behind. It’s two successive games without any questionable antics though, and that’s a big improvement on previous years.
Italy will be in no doubt that the world is against them once more; after suffering the Van Nistelrooy offside decision, yesterday’s match against Romania saw them suffer more misery at the hands of the officials. Luca Toni has enjoyed plenty of luck so far, and all of it rotten. The big striker had one chalked off incorrectly for offside, then was stopped in his tracks by another erroneous flag when he was about to find the net for a second time. The Italians must also be very confused about UEFA’s amendment to the offside rule in this tournament, which I’m guessing must read “If it pisses off the Italians, it’s fine by us”.
Italy ended up having to rely on a classic skin-of-the-teeth escape that they must have become quite accustomed to over the years. Despite enjoying the vast majority of the game, they found themselves first of all behind to an excellent Mutu finish after a complete howler by Zambrotta, then after equalising immediately they later found themselves on the brink of falling behind again, this time to a penalty correctly awarded against Panucci. Mutu’s kick failed however, thanks to an extraordinary save by Buffon who, having dived the wrong way, stuck out a trailing hand, palmed the ball onto his boot, and away to safety.
The Italians really should have been out of sight by then, the two bad offside decisions aside, the Italians created plenty of other opportunities to bury the lightweight Romanians, but were let down by frustrating marginals, final pass slightly off target, crosses slightly underhit/overhit, goalbound shots blocked, slightly slow to he second ball, etc, etc. The run of the ball hasn’t been with Italy in this tournament for sure, but you felt yesterday that they just needed to up their level and these scraps could easily have been turned into feasts.
The Italians did win one contest, in fact they proved themselves to be the undisputed champions at looking aggrieved at a referees decisions. Never have you see so may raised shoulders, upturned palms, and wide, offended blue-eyed stares in your life. Especially at the award of the penalty, all eleven of them striking the same incredulous pose. Wonderful.
As it is, the Italians’, like the French, have relinquished control over their own qualification. If Romania beat Holland, who have already won the group and will surely be planning to rest players, then Italy and France are on their bike, whatever happens in their own game. The Dutch, I’m sure, will be terribly concerned about playing fair given that the Italians or French would be their likely semi-final opponents should either get through at the expense of Romania.
I am starting to come to terms with the idea that before this tournament is out, I may have to heap praise on a Dutch side. Which is a terrifying prospect. Far less likely at the moment is that I will have to do the same with the French, so it’s not all bad.
Interestingly, a Romanian victory over Holland on tuesday night is already as short as an 11/10 shot. In fact Holland are barely favourites for the match, having scored 7 goals in two games against the two World Cup finalists. Hmm. The words ‘Rat’ and ‘Smell’ spring to mind.