Tag Archives: Ruud Van Nistelrooy

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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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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