Still the goals keep going, still teams refuse to sit back and merely defend, and still the Dutch look like the best football team at Euro 2008. It’s almost as if the players and the coaches of all the nations have got together and decided to play with the care-free air of an end of year party. At the end of a year which has seen my spine start to curl with cynicism over the state of the modern game, it’s like a breath of fresh air, as, for about the sixth match in a row, two of Europe’s best played out an absolutely magnificent match which could have gone in either direction but ended in another resounding win for a Dutch team that is rapidly starting to look as good as the team that won the competition twenty years ago, or even (whisper it) the great team of the 1970s. They booked their place in the quarter-finals last night, and they did it eventually with room to spare, but to say that this was the full story of last night’s match would be doing a great disservice to France, who played a full contribution to proceedings and were harshly served by the eventual 4-1 scoreline.
The opening goal was a conventional enough affair. A corner from the right, headed in by Dirk Kuyt, who has produced more football of any value in his last 180 minutes for the Netherlands than he did all season Liverpool. France had the better play for much of the rest of the first half, but the score stayed at 1-0 thanks in no small part to some excellent goalkeeping from Edwin Van Der Saar, who blocked a low shot from Willy Sagnol outstandingly and had to stretch to save a low shot from Franck Ribery. There were period, early in the second half, when it looked as if a French equaliser was inevitable. Ribery shot wide from close range when he probably should have scored, Henry had a shot blocked by Andre Ooijer on the line that looked as if it bounced off his arm (though it would probably have been a harsh decision had it been awarded). The key moment came on fifty-three minutes, when Malouda’s over-head kick put Thierry Henry through on goal. Usually, one would have bet their life savings on Henry scoring from the position that he was in but, with Van der Saar coming out towards him, he showed an uncharacteristic heaviness of touch and lifted the ball over both Van Der Saar and the crossbar.
The game opened up upon the introduction of Robin Van Persie, who was brought on to replace Dirk Kuyt shortly afterwards. A fantastic turn and pass by Ruud Van Nistelrooy put Arjen Robben away on the left hand side, and his low cross was touch in with virtually Van Persie’s first touch. It was virtually Van Persie’s first touch, and the French goalkeeper Gregory Coupet almost kept it out, but the ball dribbled agonizingly over the line to double their lead. Two goals down and with thirty minutes to play, France could have given up or the Netherlands could have put eleven men behind the ball to try and protect their lead, but neither of these outcomes would have been particularly characteristic of Euro 2008 so far. Twelve minutes after the Netherlands doubled their lead, France found what they thought was a route back into the game, when Willy Sagnol’s cross from the right-hand side was touched in by Henry. It looked as if a barn-storming last twenty minutes was on the cards, but any hopes that the French may have had of a revival lasted barely thirty seconds, as Arjen Robben got away down the left and scored with a shot into the roof of the net from an absolutely impossible angle. The third goal was probably the fatal blow, and there was no route back for the French, although one suspected every time that they got forward that they might score and bring themselves back into the game. The icing on the cake, however, came in the last couple of minutes, as Wesley Snijder lifted the ball over Coupet and into the top corner to make the final score 4-1.
Where next, then, for the Netherlands? Moreover, where next for Group C? The Dutch are home and dry – expect to see Robben and Van Persie starting the final match against Romania. If Romania win that match (and they took four points from six in their qualifying group), they will be through and both France and Italy will be out. Otherwise, the winners of the France vs Italy match will join them. If France and Italy draw and the Netherlands draw against or beat Romania, then Romania will still be through unless Romania lose by three goals, in which case UEFA will invoke the little-known triangular pitch with three goals, and make them all play-off against each other*. It will be a tense evening.
*Not strictly true – if someone wants to clarify all the permutations for me, feel free to do so in the comments section