…And as if by magic, the Dutch and the Italians arrived. Barely half an hour after I finished writing about a match that was described (accurately) by Alan Hansen as “one of the worst games of football I’ve ever seen”, they kicked off in Berne for a match that has finally kicked some life into the body of Euro 2008. With the truly great matches, you can retire with the knowledge that the final score of the match could have been anything. So it was tonight – Italy could just have easily won 3-0 as the Netherlands did – and it poured a breath fresh air into a tournament that had started to go stale after four matches of a mediocre nature and one outright bad one.
The Italians played a full part in a breathless, dizzying match, in which play swept from one end to the other like a wave lapping against a beach, but whilst one feels a degree of sympathy for Roberto Donadoni, whose team twice saw themselves coming within an inch of hauling themselves back into proceedings, but for the scoreline to have finished with anything other than a decisive Dutch victory would have been ill reward for Marco Van Basten’s team, who cast aside their workmanlike reputation to summon up a performance that was the match of anything achieved by Cruyff and Neesken’s team of the 1970s or Van Basten himself and Gullit’s team of the late 1980s. They were fortunate with the first goal – the injured Christian Panucci behind the goal being the only player that could conceivably have played Ruud Van Nistelrooy onside as he passed the ball past the hapless Buffon in the Italian goal.
The result of the match was determined in thirty astonishing seconds not five minutes after the Dutch had taken the lead. Pirlo’s deep corner was headed off the line by Giovanni Van Bronckhorst. Van Bronckhorst’s clearance fell to Wesley Sneijder, who in turn found Rafael Van Der Vaart. Van Bronckhorst hadn’t stopped running from the initial clearance and Van Der Vaart swept the ball wide to him from the centre circle. In turn, Sneijder had kept running and chased fully seventy yards to get onto the end of Van Bronckhorst’s return pass to fire the ball past Buffon. It was a glorious moment – surely the goal of the tournament – and put clear daylight between the two sides that would have been extended still further had not Buffon not saved well from Van Nistelrooy just before half-time.
By comparison the Italians looked positively leaden-footed up front, but the replacement of Di Natale with the 33 year old Bruce Springsteen lookalike Alessandro Del Piero breathed new life into them midway through the second half, and the Dutch were to be grateful that their goalkeeper Edwin Van Der Saar was on top of things in order to protect their lead. The highlight was a free kick from Pirlo which he scrambled across the goal to save. Had it gone in, the Dutch would have been 2-1 up with ten minutes to play. As it turned out, they broke quickly. Dirk Kuyt’s shot was blocked and Van Bronckhorst headed in to make it 3-0 (a goal which David Pleat, whose descent into apparent senility makes watching live matches on ITV a curiously unsettling experience, uncharitably tried to call as an own goal because the ball hit a defender on the line before going in).
It’s difficult to believe that the Dutch will be able to play this well again. The spectre of Argentina at the last World Cup, who dazzled against Serbia & Montenegro in the first round and then limped tamely out to Germany in the quarter-finals, lives long in the memory. They have, however, given themselves an outstanding chance of making it through to the quarter-finals, and one dreads to think what they might do to France if they play as well again and France play as badly. Italy played well enough in patches for the neutral to believe that they could yet qualifty from this group . They are plenty capable of beating France and Romania, and this would secure their passage into the quarter-finals. The more important question regarding them is what psychological damage might have been done by last night’s result. In France or Italy (or maybe both of them), Euro 2008 could be missing one of its favourites by the time it reaches the last eight.