Farewell then, France. Last night had been an evening that promised to hit a crescendo of tension, excitement and drama, but in the event the evening in Zurich all went off like a firework display in a monsoon, with a French selection and performance that gave Italy a relatively comfortable ride through to the quarter-finals, whilst in Berne the Dutch comfortably found a way past a Romania side which, three games in, finally showed up the shortcomings that many had suspected would lead to them being one of the tournament’s lame ducks before so much as a ball was kicked.
France’s failure against Italy can be best summed up by twenty-five minutes of misfortune, tempestuousness and incompetence. They lost Franck Ribery, the creative spark that has lit up their midfield at this tournament and frequently looked like the only player capable of carrying them through the group stages to injury after just seven minutes. His replacement, Sami Nasri, would last just nineteen minutes before suffering the ultimate indignity of the substitute – being substituted himself, to be replaced by Jean-Alain Boumsong. The reason for the subsitution was plain enough – a couple of minutes beforehand, Abidal had managed to get himself in a pickle over the sight of Luca Toni bearing down on Gregory Coupet’s goal. His foul was a clear red card and penalty, which Andrea Pirlo dispatched with ease, and what had started out as a difficult evening for France suddenly became an insurmountable challenge.
Italy played better than they had in their previous game against Romania, not that this was saying much. With France having had their formation put through the mincer by the events of the first thirty minutes, it never looked as if they needed to do any more than enough. The second goal came just after the hour mark, and was further proof that the footballing gods were looking down on the Azzurri with considerable benevolence. Daniele De Rossi’s free kick was from such a distance that it really had no right to be going anywhere near the goal, but the ball clipped off the foot of Thierry Henry, on the end of the French wall, and spun agonisingly away from Coupet and into the back of the net for the second goal. France may yet have found a way back into the game into the closing stages, but the dying embers of their tournament challenge were extinguished once and for all when Buffon dived across goal to flick away Karim Benzema’s shot. At that moment, France were out and Italy could only rely on the news from Berne.
They needn’t have worried. Some pre-emptive gamesmanship from the Italian press seemed to have worked like a charm for Italy, with unfounded allegations that the Netherlands would throw the game agaist Romania proving to be all the encouragement that the Dutch would need to see off the surprise package of the group. True enough, they made numerous changes from the side that had beaten France on Friday night, but this was a team of reserves eager to prove themselves to Marco Van Basten with their last opportunity to before the knock-out stages of the competition. One young man that seized the opportunity was Ajax’s Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, who had previously scored seven times in twelve matches for the Dutch, but had been unable to impress himself upon the first team ahead of last night’s match. He scored the first goal last night – proof, as if it was needed, of the glorious attacking options that Van Basten has at his disposal – and looked like a menace all evening before being taken offwith seven minutes to play. In the closing stages, Robin Van Persie added a second goal to remove any doubt that it would be the Netherlands and Italy qualifying from the group.
In the end, the football gods presumably decided that we had all had too much excitement already. The Dutch were workmanlike, France were poor and Italy did just about enough, and one suspects that Spain, Italy’s quarter-final opponents, will have too much in the tank for the world champions unless they raise their game. It would be foolish to suggest that the Italians aren’t plenty capable of doing this, though. The Netherlands, meanwhile, will go on to play the winners of tonight’s match between Sweden and Russia. On form, it looks like they should be a shoo-in for a place in the semi-finals, but Euro 2008 hasn’t normally being much attention to the form book so far. A repeat of the group match between the Netherlands and Italy at the semi-final stage remains a distinct possibility.