Tag Archives: Holland

Make Way For The Dutch Grand Master

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Euro 2008 just doesn’t know when to stop does it? It continues to raise the bar of excitement still higher; just when you think you’ve seen everything this amazing tournament just keeps delivering more. Surely though, surely we saw the tournament reach its peak on saturday with as thrilling a game of football as has been seen in this or any other championship? Surely this one can’t be beaten?? Seriously, if we really are destined to see a more dramatic match than the one between Russia and Holland, I cannot understand why the world is not as one clearing its diaries for the remaining four instalments of this incredible competition.

Now, having been heavily critical of Holland whilst everyone else has been unable to do anything but dollop great spoonfuls of golden-syrupy sweeteness all over them, it would be easy for me to be smug at what was a quite comprehensive and embarrassing defeat. All I can promise is that I will try my level best to be objective, but I can’t help but think that every single Dutch bandwagon-jumper must have a sickly taste in their mouth after this.

In truth, the kind of defeat I had predicted for Holland, one that involved sulking, cheating and general nastiness, never happened. The Dutch took their defeat fairly gracefully, and quite rightly so as they were thoroughly outplayed in every department of the game by a better team. More painful still, they were completely outfoxed tactically by the competition’s finest Dutchman, Guus Hiddink. Why the Dutch F.A haven’t spent the last 10 years begging this man to come home and bring the success to the national team that his genius would surely guarantee, only they can know.

The BBC punditry team, when giving their predictions on Football Focus, went 7-0 in favour of Holland. Only simpleton Mark Lawrenson hadn’t been asked for his view previously and, having watched the film of all his colleagues going for Holland, decided to go for Russia just to be different. It’s about time Lawro got something right, even if it was by accident, so I’ll grant him his moment of glory.

The beeb’s predictions, like everyone elses, were totally blind to the football that had been played previously, where Holland had had more than their fair share of luck against Italy, then beat a dreadful French side largely thanks to the impact play of Arjen Robben in the second half. Russia had given by far the best complete footballing display of either side in the group stages when dismantling Sweden in their final match, so their danger should have been more widely acknowledged.

Over on ITV, where the match was actually covered, things were no better. The build-up to the game was almost entirely Oranje-related, and the boys couldn’t say enough about how much they were looking forward to another exhibition of attacking beauty. The boys got their wish, but the beauty came exclusively from the team in white, who so consummately disassembled the Dutchmen that on the night Holland could be thankful the score against them didn’t comprise two figures, and were unbelievably fortunate in taking the game to extra-time.

Some of the commentary heard from Peter Drury as the game evolved and it became abundantly clear that ITV weren’t going to get the opportunity to worship the Dutch display as they clearly desired, but worse still assumed all the viewers did too, was quite disgustingly patronising. During extra-time he openly admitted to loving the Dutch, but discussed with summariser Jim Beglin that he was being swayed by the Russians such was the quality of their football. Translation: “Christ Beglin, we’ve backed the wrong one here bigtime, how can we get out of this without looking thoroughly stupid?”. My advice Peter, would be to turn up just to commentate on what actually takes place and not let your hype-induced favour for one of the two teams allow you to make such misjudged predictions.

The Russian display was exhilharating. Whilst the Dutch did their usual and sat waiting for the opposition to make the first move, Russia snapped up the initiative and pinned Holland back from the off. For the first time a Dutch defence that always looked weak on paper received a real test, and they crumbled. The Russians walked through the Dutch back line time after time with high-speed precision passing and movement that was made to look simple and effortless. Holland were forced to play so deep that they were completely unable to respond with any periods of pressure, their only threat coming from set pieces where the Russian defence showed its own fallibility.

The one thing that does elude this Russian team though is clinical finishing and, just as they had against Sweden, they wasted so many opportunities that it undermined their dominance and allowed their opponents to stay in the game. It took Russia until the 56th minute to take the lead, when Roman Pavlyuchenko turned in Sergei Semak’s cross. Pavlyuchenko seems to be your classic frustrating striker; very reliable in terms of getting on the end of chances, but the exact opposite when it comes to actually putting them away. He certainly infuriates Hiddink, who insisted that his man-of-the-match award against Greece had been unmerited due to being so wasteful infront of goal.

Russia seem to make so many chances however, that Pavlyuchenko seems to be able to miss plenty and still end up on the scoresheet in most games. It was not just the striker who was guilty on saturday however, and Russia’s failure to make the scoreline reflect the beating they had given the Dutch threatened to cost them dear.

Many inexperienced teams would have tried to put up the shutters on going one up in such a huge game, but this Russian team doesn’t appear to know the meaning of negativity. Or maybe they’re just aware that their defending isn’t quite in the same league as their attacking play and so sensibly try and keep the ball as far away from the danger end for as long as possible, a lesson a few other teams would do well to learn. However, as the semi-final prize edged nearer, some panic inevitably set in and in the last 15 minutes Russia began to clear their lines with more desperation, and for the first time in the match conceded some ground and possession to the Dutch. It’s worth pointing out that the Russians still looked the more likely to score when breaking, and that the only way Holland looked like scoring was still from a set piece.

Any neutrals watching, which clearly didn’t include our broadcasters, can only have been willing the Russians to either hang on or grab another to seal it, such would have been the injustice of a Dutch equaliser. I hardly need to tell you what happened next do I? Yep, Holland equalised from a set piece. Three minutes from time, free kick on the left, Sneijder curled in a beauty, and the statuesque defenders watched Van Nistelrooy score from his average distance of about two yards. Neutral hearts sank.

Failing to see it through having come so close must have hurt a young, inexperienced team like Russia, which only makes what happened in extra-time even more astonishing. With everyone waiting for Holland to grow in confidence after their escape, and finish off a mentally shattered side, Russia took up where they had left off, and then some. Extra-time can often be cagey, as both teams become nervous about conceding with so little time to respond, but on this occasion it was complete one-way traffic, as the Russians proved themselves to be not only technically and physically superior, but also resilient and courageous. Russia, with no fear whatsoever, attacked Holland throughout extra-time, missed yet more chances, but finally, finally sealed the semi-final place they deserved with two more goals in the second period.

Russia’s on-field driving force throughout had once again been Andrei Arshavin, who gave the sponsors their easiest man-of-the-match decision of the tournament with a virtuoso display that was comfortably the finest individual performance seen at these championships. In two matches he has changed this Russian team from potential also-rans into potential champions, not only with his own play, but with the additional confidence his presence appears to inject into his team-mates. He’s probably also added about £10 million to his transfer value, something we are almost certain to discover when Russia’s adventure comes to an end.

It’s difficult to know whether Arshavin is a midfield playmaker, winger, or striker, as at present he seems to be doing all three. If his future managers have any sense they will take their lead from Mr Hiddink and let him do whatever he wants. The free role he enjoyed allowed him to provide the crucial second Russian goal from the left hand side, and score the third from the right. The cross he provided for the second was quite unbelievable, lifting it over defender and goalkeeper from an impossibly tight position to drop just inside the far post requiring only a tap in, which it received from substitute Dmitri Torbinski.

Of course many managers could do a lot worse than take a few lessons from Guus Hiddink, who has now added to an already staggering record with another unlikely success. Hiddink said afterwards that to outplay a team like Holland tactically, technically and physically was testament to the quality of his players. That was modesty talking of course; the victory was an enormous tribute to Hiddink’s own, currently unmatched, skills as a coach. Before he took over Russia were a bunch of water-treading underachievers who wouldn’t have qualified, two years on they sit two matches away from becoming European Champions, with very few brave enough to write off their chances.

Hiddink does have one new obstacle to overcome however, and that is the semi-final. He has been thwarted at this stage with his native country and with South Korea in the World Cups of 1998 and 2002 respectively. Surely no one would now put it past him to make it third time lucky, and cement his place amongst the managerial legends.

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The ‘Kids’ Are Alright

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The way the TV boys have been referring to Russia and Sweden throughout the tournament, you would think they are, respectively, a bunch of raw 18-year-olds recently plucked from a schoolboy international, and a plodding group of 35-plus footballing geriatrics on their last legs. In truth this is a complete exaggeration, but watching the two sides last night you would have been forgiven for believing the hype.

The curtain came down on the group stage of Euro 2008 with a frightening display by Guus Hiddink’s Russians that displayed all the qualities one associates with young players; pace, imagination, enthusiasm, and panic infront of goal. Sweden on the other hand looked like a collection of ageing limbs, making a rather ungraceful exit from the international stage.

The facts though, are that the youngest player on either starting XI was Russia’s 22-year-old goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev, and that Russia fielded two outfield players under 25 to Sweden’s one. Sweden’s starting line-up contained six thirty-somethings to Russia’s three, but this is misleading as only one on each side was older than 31. Also, Russia’s two central strikers, Andrei Arshavin and Roman Pavlyuchenko, are of identical ages, 27 and 26 respectively, to two of Sweden’s attackers, Johan Elmander and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Given these stats, I don’t think Sweden should be allowed to get away with age being cited as an excuse for their pedestrian display.

Perhaps what we were watching was a nostalgic throwback to the communist era, and the Swedes were actually the victims of a sneaky Russian sabotage. They certainly had the appearance of playing in mysteriously leaden boots, and as anyone who has ever watched an American film from the 1980s will know, these pesky Reds will try anything.

The reality is that the Swedes were totally outclassed by a more confident and skilful side, and the Russian victory was yet another one at Euro 2008 for smart attacking adventure over dour defensive pragmatism, making it so far the exact opposite of Euro 2004. How Sweden got away with a deficit of only two is perhaps the only worrying aspect of the game for Guus Hiddink, but he will prefer to concentrate on his side’s stunning exhibition of passing and movement around the box that has so far only been matched in this tournament by Croatia.

Russia were able to field Arshavin, their most feared attacking player, for the first time in the tournament, and the confidence his presence seemed to give the rest of the side was the noticeable difference between this Russian display and those seen against Spain and Greece. In the early stages against the Spanish, Russia definitely gave some strong hints at their attacking abilities, but quickly seemed to lose heart after defensive errors cost them goals. Against the Greeks, they appeared nervous about over-committing in a game that could have seen them exit the tournament early. Last night, they played with the freedom of a team that felt they were fully-equipped to dispose of their opponents.

From the off, Russia tore a supposedly tough Swedish rearguard to shreds, creating clearcut chances for fun, and getting so many men forward that often their biggest problems were getting under each others feet, and having to hold a debate to decide who would shoot. The two goals that were scored were both of sublime brilliance, and had they been scored by the Dutch we would never have heard the end of it. The first was a swift one touch passing move which saw the ball worked first wide then back into the centre, leaving the static defenders resembling yellow training cones. The second was, in my opinion, the goal of the tournament so far; a quite stunning counter from a Swedish defensive free kick aimlessly punted into the Russian half. The kick fell straight to a Red shirt just over the half-way line, and within seconds the ball had been ruthlessly transferred in four movements into the back of the net, finished effortlessly by Arshavin, with experienced defenders looking on in despair.

Now, I’m going to try a little analysis here:

It’s interesting to compare the second Russian goal to the one scored by Wesley Sneijder for Holland against Italy, as that goal was repeated over and over again for days and presented to us as an example of the perfect counter-attacking goal.

Granted the Dutch move began from their own goal line, so covered almost half a pitch more ground than the Russian one, but as the move evolves you can see that none of the Dutch players are marked. The key ball in the move is the one that releases Van Bronckhorst on the left wing, but because Van Bronckhorst’s run from his own penalty area hadn’t been tracked by a single Italian, he was in acres of space, meaning that the ball to find him needed to be nothing better than a hoof into space. From there, Van Bronckhorst overhits his cross, but the unmarked Kuyt has enough time to backpedal and nod the ball down to the unmarked Sneijder, whose first time volley beats Buffon for pace at the near post.

The Russian goal is better becasue it has so much less margin for error. When the hopeless Swedish free kick lands at the feet of the Russian player there is a conventional formation infront of him, he has three attacking players ahead, all marked, and there is a spare defender who has just taken the free kick who can come across to cover if necessary. The attacking players all begin to move in different directions, pulling their markers out of position, and the three passes that are played to get the ball to the goalscorer are all placed on a sixpence at the feet of their target, and have to be. Arshavin has no time to wait with the finish, and yet it’s measured, placed to perfection in the far corner.

I’m honestly not picking on the Dutch here, I’m just fed up of biased TV coverage telling us certain teams/players are geniuses whilst merely paying lip-service to others when I can’t see any difference between what they’ve done.

The Russian wonder goal came five minutes into the second half, and they somehow contrived to miss everything else that came their way after that, hitting the woodwork, shooting when they should have passed, passing when they should have shot, and finishing lazily. At no stage did Russia sit back and settle for what they had, even at 2-0; every opportunity to attack that came their way was snapped up. Let that be a lesson to their beaten opponents and a few others.

The Swedes had clearly been sent out with a first priority of protecting the draw that would have seen them qualify, and once that had gone out of the window fairly early, there appeared to be no plan B. They looked distinctly ordinary all over the park, and none more so than Ibrahimovic, who recently became the highest-paid footballer in the world after signing a new contract with Internazionale worth over £9 million pounds a year.

Let me repeat that, Zlatan Ibrahimovic is paid over £9 million pounds a year, more than any other footballer in the world. Does anyone else think this guy is a carthorse? All he seems to do for Inter is convert penalties, and he hadn’t scored for Sweden in over two years before this tournament. Last night he looked slow, predictable and a very comfortable nights work for average defenders, which is all he was up against. Henrik Larsson, ten years his senior, offered far more threat if only because he displayed a little guile and invention, something which seems to me to be beyond the capabilities of Ibrahimovic.

For Russia, they move on to the knockout stages of a tournament for the first time since the USSR were beaten in the final of Euro 88 by Holland, and Marco Van Basten’s famous goal. Their quarter final opponents, of course, are Holland and Marco Van Basten. Holland’s best performance since then was reaching the world cup semi-final in ’98 and losing on penalties to Brazil, under the management of Guus Hiddink. Another ten years on, and all these factors have strangely come around again to give us the mouthwatering prospect of Holland v Hiddink.

Sadly for Euro 2008, we shall now see no more of Greece and their unique brand of beautifully choreographed slapstick. They leave Euro 2008 as the only side not to win a single point, but not as the only side without a goal, after they left us quite fittingly with a reminder of how it was all done four years ago. A set piece, swung dangerously into the penalty area, and Charisteas rises to plant a header beyond the helpless keeper. Ah, the memories!

However it didn’t last, as even Spain’s reserves seemed miffed with the idea of dropping points to the Greeks, and came back in the second half with two goals to turn it around, the first an absolute corker from the appropriately named Ruben De La Red. Greece at least bowed out without too much hilarity this time, for once their veteran goalkeeper and Euro 2008’s clown-in-chief Antonis Nikopolidis appeared blameless.

Greece’s spectacular transition from heroes to zeroes reflect the changing attitudes shown towards the championships this time compared to four years ago. In amongst a group of teams infected with negativity as in 2004, the field was levelled out for Greece and they filled their boots. This time around, where the etiquette has been for ambition, adventure, and risk-taking, they have been left out in the cold. Maybe that’s good news for football, but the Greeks’ incredible triumph will live long in the memoy as a thrilling event, because it was so unexpected. Also, they may have done international tournaments a great service for the future in giving all negative minded coaches of talent-rich teams a wake-up call.

Spain, as all the other three group winners had, sent out an entirely reserve side. Their rather tame efforts had more in common with Portugal’s final game than with Croatia and Holland’s momentum maintenance. It will almost certainly have no significance whatsoever, though it will be an interesting match-up with Italy, who will come into the quarter-final with the match mentality firmly switched on.

So, it’s goodbye to the group stages, and hello penalty-shoot outs. Suddenly, I fancy the Germans again.

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What Might Have Been

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Firstly, I would like to say sorry to the Dutch. Did you get that everyone? I admit it, I owe Holland an apology. Not for all I have said about their past conduct resembling that of snivelling, diving, whining, ill-natured schoolboys; I shall stand by that until they get through the whole tournament without displaying any of these ‘qualities’, though I admit we have thankfully seen none of them so far.

However, I did suggest in my previous post that Holland may be tempted not to play entirely competitively against Romania in order to assist the elimination of potentially dangerous semi-final opponents Italy and France. Holland in fact displayed an exemplary attitude in beating the Romanians with as much ease as they had earlier despatched the Italians and French, and left the World Cup finalists to fight out second place in Group C. What’s more, they enhanced their own growing reputation still further by winning comfortably with the reserves out, and now look worthy tournament favourites.

There. That actually hurt a lot less than I expected. Now let’s get on with it.

  

Italy cantered through to the quarter-finals of Euro 2008 at the expense of the diabolical French; the Italians worst fears of a Dutch rollover against Romania were dispelled in the second half as news came in of Oranje success. Amusing though the French demise was, it all went off without any real drama, and when you consider what might have happened with different results, we were actually robbed of some high-class entertainment.

These were just some of the possible permutations:

  • Any win by Romania sent them through, any failure to win by Romania would send the winner of France v Italy through. Two draws would also have seen Romania progress. Nothing but a win was good enough for France. The interesting scenario would have been a Romanian defeat and a draw between the French and Italians, leaving all three sides on two points.
  • In this situation, the nature of the draw between France and Italy would have made a difference; if Italy had achieved a score-draw against the French, their head-to-head record would have been better than Romania’s, having scored more goals. A 0-0 however would have left Romania and Italy clear of the French, but inseperable by their own head-to-head record, and therefore we would have moved on to the criterium of goal difference from the group as a whole to separate those two.

Keeping up so far?

  • Now, with a 0-0 draw between France and Italy and a Romanian defeat by anything less than three, Romania would have progressed with a better group goal difference than Italy. If Romania had lost by more than 3, it would have been Italy who had the superior record (try and remember that the French are already out of the equation by this point).
  • If Romania had lost by exactly three, their group goal difference would have been the same as Italy’s, but if they had done so by any score besides 3-0 (i.e 4-1, 5-2, etc), then Romania would have finished above Italy on group goals scored. If, however, Romania had lost 3-0, they and Italy would have been inseperable using the first 5 criteria in UEFA’s rules: Head-to-head points, head-to-head goal difference, head-to-head goals scored, group goal difference, and group goals scored. If this scenario had materialised, Italy would have progressed on criterium number six – a better UEFA coefficient rating.
  • The coefficient is UEFA’s version of cricket’s Duckworth/Lewis system, the rating is found by adding up the total points gained by the sides concerned in all qualifying matches for Euro 2008 and the 2006 World Cup, and dividing that number of points by the number of matches played.

Just to recap, It would have taken only a 0-0 draw between Italy and France, and a 3-0 defeat for Romania in order for Italy to have qualified on this preposterous basis. Now, was that really too much to ask?

Now, the reasons for my choosing to explain all that are: a) it’s far more interesting than what actually happened, and b) to try and give you an idea of the fun we were denied. No, no, I’m not talking about merely watching baffled players and coaches trying to figure it all out whilst still playing the match; what I’m really disappointed about is that we didn’t get to hear John Motson try and explain all of the above, with Mark Lawrenson’s help! Can you imagine what these clowns would have made of it? They would have more chance with the theory of relativity. The TV event of the year, snatched from our grasp.

What did take place was a very comfortable Italian win against an appalling French side that were in total disarray from the kick-off. Admittedly they did not need the additional unlucky blow of a serious injury to Ribery, but France would be very unwise to try and cite this as an excuse. Italy should have been over the hills and far away by half-time, and would have been had Luca Toni not continued with a display of profligacy that suggests he may have Austrian blood. Toni must have been clean through at least five times in the first half, and though the chances had varying degrees of difficulty, we should surely expect better from a man who scored 39 goals for Bayern Munich in the regular season.

The fact that Toni seems unacquainted with a barn door makes the decision of Eric Abidal to bring the striker down when once again through on goal a questionable one; he may have been better off taking his chances on letting the striker try and finish the chance. Nevertheless, Abidal clumsily brought the big man to the ground with the goal at his mercy, and was quite rightly shown the door by the referee. The decision was met with agreement by all except Mark Lawrenson, who doesn’t think that bringing someone down when clean through on goal ten yards out and in the act of shooting constitutes a red card offence under current rules.

Abidal only found himself in the unfamiliar position of centre-back thanks to the late withdrawal of Lilian Thuram, who claimed that ‘his head wasn’t right’. This would barely be acceptable from an 18 year-old debutant, but from an ageing member of the squad selected specifically for the stability his experience brings, this is quite unforgiveable. Unless of course this is all a cover story and Raymond Domenech had decided that Abidal had better aspects on the day, perhaps after seeing Capricorn shafting Aquarius on Jupiter with the help of Taurus while Gemini looked on from Mars in amazement. Or something.

The ten Frenchmen were probably better than the eleven had been, but then again they could hardly have been any worse. After somehow surviving to half-time trailing only to Pirlo’s penalty, they actually showed some (gulp!) fighting spirit in the second half, before a deflected free-kick by De Rossi finished them off. As news came through that there would be no mysteriously convenient result to eliminate them as there had been four years previously, the Italians relaxed and enjoyed themselves for a change.

De Rossi was magnificent, and the man-of-the-match by a mile. His form will be a relief to the Italians, and they will despearetely need him to maintain it in the quarter-final, as the rest of their central midfield, Pirlo and Gattuso, will be sitting out the clash with Spain after picking up second bookings.

As for Raymond Domenech’s future, where else can we look but to the stars:

Aquarius: Everyone wants a piece of you today, you are the centre of attention, and it will seem like the whole world is queueing up to speak to you. Be careful though, as towards the end of the day your backside may be met by a large shiny boot, which will propel you in the direction of a long queue. You should take heart from this, and see it as the springboard for a new career. Remember, never look back, and don’t be tempted to give your current role another try. The stars would like to reiterate: Please, please do not be tempted.

 

The Dutch continue to make a fool of me, and my hopes for an undignified implosion are starting to wane. The non-performace that many expected never looked like happening, and Romania appeared fortunate to get away with only losing 2-0. Mind you when your ‘reserves’ include the likes of Robben, Van Persie and Huntelaar, you probably should be winning with a degree of comfort.

Watching this one, and indeed the entire group, you have to wonder what on earth the Dutch were up to finishing behind Romania in qualifying. I can only assume they were indulging in their usual tantrums, but if that’s true then Marco Van Basten has done something very shrewd at some stage since, because there has been no hint of it so far at these championships. If he can get the Dutch squad through the whole thing without any signs of a temperament issue, it will be a miracle. Furthermore, Holland will probably win the tournament because, as usual, they have far more ability at their disposal than anyone else.

The scariest thing about the Dutch victory was the post-match celebration on the pitch. So much happiness! They all did a lap of honour together; there was laughing, joking, babies being kissed, the lot. It was Croatia-esque. Anyone would think they were friends. In fact you have to wonder if Holland haven’t got a little ahead of themselves with the celebrating; you wouldn’t get this from the Germans after the first round.

Romania exited Euro 2008 with a whimper, and according to our press, regretting Adrian Mutu’s missed penalty against Italy. According to me, they should have far more regrets over their failure to beat the French, and their rather joyous celebrations at having done so now look rather silly. Had they had more attacking inclination in that match, they would probably have won, and Italy would have been in a far more perilous position when the two sides met.

The fact that every group winner was decided after two games is slightly spoiling the fun of this round of matches; as is digital TV, which allows the TV companies to show both games and leave it up to the viewers to choose. It was much more fun when we used to have confused TV directors having to swap from one match to the other every five minutes as developments kept changing the emphasis.

As it is, we are left with another group with just one match that offers any interest, and one completely dead rubber. Mind you the same was true of group A, and that didn’t turn out too badly. Russia will welcome back Andrei Arshavin of Zenit St Petersburg, destroyer of Rangers in the UEFA cup final, who brainlessly got himself booked in the final qualifier and thus suspended for the first two games here. Russia will need him, as the draw belongs to Sweden tonight, and they will probably need all available craftiness to break down through the well-drilled yellow and blue barricades.

That said, Sweden should beware. In a one off encounter where winner-takes-all, the last place I would want to be is on the opposite side to Guus Hiddink.

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I should think so too

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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.

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Van Nistelrooy’s Law (part 2)

As I said yesterday:

“I actually have a theory that the offside rule is altered on the hoof to allow goals by Ruud Van Nistelrooy. I remain convinced that the rule change that allows a player in an offside position to score in a second phase of play was made during a league game between Manchester United and Southampton in order to allow a Van Nistelrooy goal.”

You know what, it’s only happened again:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/football/euro_2008/7445476.stm

I mean, can anyone honestly tell me they’ve come across an example of this before?

So it now appears that we have an offside rule which allows a player to stand infront of a goalkeeper whilst a team-mate takes a shot, and be considered inactive/not interfering/invisible, whilst a player lying in state off the pitch is active/interfering/a damn nuisance.

Or to put it another way, if you’re a striker earning a million pounds every 5 minutes, you are allowed to stand where you like and score because you are of great value to UEFA and FIFA’s long-term project of creaming off zillions in advertising revenue. If on the other hand you’re a defender no one’s heard of, don’t you dare try and interfere with this process by leaving the pitch to lie down injured 20 yards away, you dastardly troublemaker. In fact, son, you know what, I just wouldn’t bother becoming a defender if I were you, there’s no real future in it.

As for Keith Hackett, just how much longer can he go on defending decisions on the basis that the law has been applied correctly, whilst blatantly ignoring that the law is farcical? Hackett was a decent ref in his day, and he should know that he’s backing the wrong horse. As a ref’s chief, the best thing he could do for his officials is campaign for the offside law to revert back to something comprehensible, that way he might not have to make so many press statements.

Mind you, if he did I get the feeling he would be wasting his time, at least until the retirement of Van Nistelrooy.

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Would everybody please calm down!

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Having been their harshest critic, it is only fair that I give Holland due credit for setting out on the road to proving me wrong. The Dutch scored two classic breakaway goals that lit up the tournament, and crushed Italy in a way they cannot have suffered in years in a match of this status.

ITV however, with something approaching a decent game to follow the abomination that the BBC had just shown, of which more later, just had to go completely over the top. All of a sudden the final whistle blows and the Dutch are being hailed as geniuses, their two counter-attacks in one game being compared with the sublimity that was Total Football, a dynasty which lasted nearly ten years, and Marco Van Basten’s famous goal being broadcast in dangerously close proximity to shots of Dirk Kuyt. Anyone would think Italy had just been given a footballing lesson on the scale of Brazil 1970, not just been caught flat footed on the break twice by a bit of slick passing. Some perspective is required I think.

If you asked Holland what their ideal scenario for a match would be, they would ask for a goal start, giving them the opportunity to sit and do absolutely nothing whilst waiting for a chance of a counter-attack. The officals duly obliged with the first part, allowing Holland a highly illegal and match altering deadlock-breaker after Van Nistelrooy tapped in from a position of at least five yards offside inside the six-yard box.

On the subject of which, why is it when there is such a blatant mistake made by the officials, the commentator describes the goal as ‘debatable’? This was true of both creepy Clive Tyldesley on ITV, and Motty on the BBC highlights. “A highly debatable goal”. What’s debatable about it? The man’s a mile offside and the officials have made an embarrassing mistake. There’s no counter-argument, where’s the debate? Most irritating.

I actually have a theory that the offside rule is altered on the hoof to allow goals by Ruud Van Nistelrooy. I remain convinced that the rule change that allows a player in an offside position to score in a second phase of play was made during a league game between Manchester United and Southampton in order to allow a Van Nistelrooy goal.

Anyway, Italy quickly went in search of the equaliser, but were swiftly caught cold at their own corner by a stunning break finished by Wesley Sneijder. Earlier, Van Nistelrooy could have given the Dutch a lead with a real goal, but turned down a tap in to instead make a comical attempt to cheat a penalty off Buffon, who saw the striker coming a mile off and made him look a fool.

In the second half Holland didn’t exactly sit back, rather they ceased to participate in the match altogether, and you felt that had the Italians pulled one back the Dutch might have crumbled. The Azzurri were soon to realise though that this was not their night, as one chance after another was spurned, and one scramble after another fell at the feet of an Orange-clad defender. The pressure grew, the substitutions that introduced Grosso and Del Piero meant the Dutch were asked many more questions, and then just when it seemed that a goal was inevitable, it came. At the other end.

Andrea Pirlo, who looked to have too much on his shoulders in the creativity department without Totti and was largely ineffective, enjoyed his best moment of the night, striking a free-kick to perfection that Van Der Sar miraculously saved, allowing the opportunistic Gio Van Bronckhorst to launch another lightning counter-attack which he eventually had to finish off himself after Kuyt had made a pig’s ear of the initial chance. Italy’s complete disorganisation in the face of these breakaways highlighted the gaping hole left at the heart of their defence by the absence of Fabio Cannavaro, I doubt Italy have ever looked so vulnerable in a major tournament. Marco Materazzi looked like a boy who had been left to cross the road by himself for the first time, having spent years holding his mother’s hand.

A night that went perfectly to plan for the men in Orange, but a display that hardly makes them “favourites for the tournament”, as ITV would have us believe. I am fairly certain that the bookmakers will not share their view that Holland are suddenly more likely to lift the trophy than the Germans. They also have plenty of time to revert to type and start cheating.

If Holland defied my expectations of them by producing some decent football, France showed them the way in meeting theirs with a bullet. The BBC predictably gave Les Bleus all the hype you could wish for. Ninety minutes later, and Alan Hansen is uttering the phrase “worst game I have ever seen in my life”. Which is inaccurate, as I happen to know he watched the 2007 FA Cup Final, but the sentiment was appreciated. The French delivered a horror no-show that even I didn’t think they were capable of. I expected France to be awful, but they were nowhere near that good. France failed to win more corners than a team rooted to their own 18-yard box. Despite having a multi-million pound, multi-trophy-winning strike force of Henry and Anelka, the French registered three shots on target, at least one of which was by Jeremy Toulalan, who has scored one goal in his entire career. The standard of French passing, final-ball, and finishing set a new low for their wretched spell under madman Raymond Domenech, and an acute sense of injustice must have been felt in Scotland after such a lamentable display from a team they beat twice in qualifying.

It’s a shame for everyone that the Scots didn’t make it, as the excitement factor would have been increased 100 times had the Tartan army brought their brand of tension-wracked majestic failure to the party. Instead we have to suffer a bunch of Frenchmen rather too keen on their national stereotype for being laid-back. Someone ought to tell them that it’s supposed to mean relaxed, not dormant.

It’s a shame too that Romania had clearly listened to so much press, they were expecting a French barrage. The obvious mistake they made was in not reading this blog, if they had they would have known they were perfectly safe to launch the odd attack here and there. Shame on them. Seriously, if Romania go out they will kick themselves for not having a bit more courage in this game, there’s no reason at all they couldn’t have beaten France comfortably.

Unlike our over-excited friends at ITV, I shall refrain from making judgements about any teams based on one game. I made two bold predictions about this group, and as yet it’s far too early to admit I was wrong about Holland, just as it’s too early to claim I was right about France. The Holland v Italy match didn’t look to be going anywhere until the Dutch were gifted a lead, so it will be interesting to see how they get on in other games, assuming that the officals won’t give them a goal start every time. We have yet to see their reaction to going a goal down, which could be an issue for the Dutch, as it usually involves kicking, spitting, sulking, and general nastiness.

They don’t have to worry themselves about it just yet though, their next game is against the French.

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Group C Preview

Oh how much I am looking forward to this! The Group of Death, packed with footballing royalty boasting numerous Premier League superstars, how can it fail to be anything but a glorious celebration of the beautiful game, packed with spectacular action and goals??

No, I was never any good at disguising sarcasm, must try harder next time. Why on earth is everyone getting their knickers in a twist about a group which has paired two sides who can always be relied upon to drag the great name of football through the mud?

Raymond Domenech

First we have the French. Now I don’t mind so much that they are widely tipped to win the tournament. I don’t agree, but I can see that there’s clear evidence to suggest that they can spawn enough 1-0 wins to get them through a short competition. What does irritate me is that some idiots still expect France to be in some way entertaining, and the TV directors delight in bombarding us with meaningless slow-motion montages of Thierry Henry et al flicking the ball over some defenders head. In short, France are the Brazil of Europe, geniuses in a bygone age, now nothing but moody, shoulder-shrugging, ultra-cynical, ultra-defensive killjoys who could no more take the game to the opposition than they could take an Orange Sauce prepared by an Englishman.

Ah yes, Orange, which brings us onto the next mob in this group. Compared to the Dutch of course, the French are footballing saints. If expecting beauty from France is naive and ill-informed, expecting it from Holland is the act of the deluded and insane. Anyone who has watched the Dutch play since the 1990 World Cup will know that they have become the standard-bearers for all that is filthy and loathsome about the modern game. Yes, yes they’re mostly supremely gifted footballers, only a fool would argue otherwise, but what use is that when you are also the biggest bunch of petty, snivelling, whining, cheating, disloyal, hold-out-for-an-extra-5-grand-a-week-when-you’re-already-on-80-grand creeps to be found anywhere in the footballing world. But because they once had a player and a team that represented the exact opposite, no one ever sees fit to point it out.

So I think by now you should know where my allegiance lies in this group.


Raymond Domenech

France – There is no denying the French back ten is going to be difficult to breach, nor that Franck Ribery has been one of the outstanding players in Europe, and is an exciting prospect even in a team as negative as this. Their tactical cowardice has the potential to bring them down though, as it did 4 years ago, and in the 2002 World Cup. Having scraped through to the World Cup Final in Germany on the back of one good performance, faith has been kept in their certifiable manager Raymond Domenech, who picks players based on their star sign. His philosophy includes the view that “I could never pick a Leo in defence because I just know he’s going to show-off and cost us”. Which perhaps explains why not too many French supporters rate their chances that highly. We also know that Thierry Henry rarely turns up in these events, and in fact has barely had an impact at international level since Euro 2000.

Italy – The world champs are notoriously slow starters, and that looks like being a worse idea than usual in this group, but I still make them favourites to come through. Many of the games will be tight, and no one is better at controlling a tight game than Italy. The difference between Italy and the rest is that if they wish to put up the shutters, their defenders are capable of doing so without the help of the rest of the team, which gives them far more options than others who have to pull the entire team back to achieve the same effect. In short, Italy know how to defend properly, which is different to being negative. They practice the art of defending, which almost everyone else has lost. To knock them out, someone is going to have to work out how to score against them, something nobody managed from open play in the World Cup.

Holland – You might say that I’m biased, and you would be right, but even objectively I think that the Dutch are sitting ducks in this group. They were behind Romania in qualifying, most of their squad is injured or woefully out of form, and their dressing room atmosphere will be frostier than the Arctic Circle. For their manager Marco Van Basten, a genius, it must be soul destroying presiding over Dirk Kuyt, knowing that he can’t pull the boots on himself. Their first match is against Italy, and if they get it wrong the Dutch will be in their least favourite position – under pressure.

Romania – Everyone’s idea of the outsiders, but the only thing they have to fear is fear itself. If they go in with the attitude that their only chance against such lofty opposition is to park the bus on the goalline and hope for the best, they will probably lose every game 1-0. The Romanians are the equals of even this company when it comes to technique, and considering that they probably have the most vulnerable defence in the group, the most sensible policy would be for them to show courage and try and scare the pants off some of these overrated chancers. I don’t hold out much hope for this though, and I can see them being condemned to a series of narrow defeats. They are certainly not without their chances though, and having finished clear of Holland in qualifying, beating them in the process, they ought to go into that fixture with expectation rather than mere hope.

I will be happy to eat my words if proved wrong, but I will be amazed if this group throws up anything other than tedium. Just await the first TV pundit making an outdated crack about Italy being boring, then see if he takes it back when the Azzurri turn out to be the entertainers of Group C.

Match To Watch – Italy v Romania

Match To Miss – France v Holland

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