That’s more like it. After far too much entertainment at Craven Cottage last week, this stroll in the Amsterdam twilight was what World Cup warm-up friendlies are all about. Not getting injured and making the post-match fireworks as incongruous as possible. While Ireland’s draw with Italy was put into perspective by the Azzurri’s inability to beat Luxembourg (Luxembourg!!), Wales’ tame defeat to the equally-tame but more talented Dutch put both teams in their rightful place – the Netherlands worried about World Cup group opponents Chile, Wales about September’s Euro 2016 qualifying opponents Andorra.
Wales were missing the “spine of their side,” known to his friends as Gareth Bale – although BBC Wales’ commentators Rob Phillips and Kevin Ratcliffe name-checked Aaron Ramsey and Ashley Williams for credibility’s sake. And Ratcliffe went even further: “But you’ve got Neil Taylor,” he pleaded, although you could almost hear his conviction draining away with every syllable. Studio pundit Barry Horne had no such qualms. “Where should Gareth Bale play?” presenter Jason Mohammed asked. “Wherever he wants,” said Horne, to rapturous applause from a bizarrely-commissioned studio audience.
The Netherlands, meanwhile, had Wesley Sneijder alternating with a member of the Dutch public in a Sneijder fright-mask – “Sneijder” interchanging occasional brilliance with lengths of doziness. And after half-time they were missing Robin Van Persie, who grimaced his way through the second quarter before Jeremain Lens replaced him in the misfiring striker role. The consensus at BBC Wales, where Robert Earnshaw and Horne opined, surrounded by the afore-mentioned, and multi-tee-shirted audience, was that the Netherlands were good going forward but would have to rely on outscoring the opposition, which Horne in particular doubted was possible. And he had ample opportunity to register this distaste for their chances in Brazil. Mohammed kept asking him if he thought the Dutch would be “there or thereabouts” at the tournament and clearly kept forgetting the answer, as Horne found variations on a facial expression saying “what part of ‘no, they can’t bloody defend’ do you not understand?”
The half-time studio chat was better than the preceding 45 minutes’ football, with the audience even offering a couple of smatterings of applause, something it was hard to imagine Alan Shearer or Robbie Savage inspiring. Horne nearly claimed Wales had “created a couple of chances” before remembering they had done nothing of the sort and amending it to “looked like they might create a chance on a couple of occasions.” What he meant was “Wales had a couple of corners.” But lest wild optimism took control, Mohammed claimed, on the sole basis that the Dutch had created four chances, that Wales “could have been four-down,” to which a startled Earnshaw replied “maybe three, take it easy.” This brought another smattering of clapping. Not a “tough” crowd, then.
The crowd in Amsterdam were a little tougher, but could have been worse. “Interested but not enthralled,” was Phillips’ accurate take on the lively chatter which accompanied the first half-hour. And there might even have been hints of laughter in that as the Dutch had been well-coached at the Keystone Cops School of defending. Players crashed into each other, with Feyenoord centre-back Bruno Martins Indi pointing furiously one way as his defensive colleagues sped off in every other conceivable direction…all before various crosses came into the box. And when Ron Vlaar is your “Mr Dependable,” you know you’ve got issues.
Despite Ratcliffe’s insistence that he “looks hesitant at setpieces,” the Dutch keeper Jasper Cillessen flew through the air with the greatest of ease for most dangerous crosses and looked one “defender” upon whom the Dutch can rely in Brazil. He, or “the Premier League’s” Tim Krul or Michel Vorm, may have to be. The midfield’s general anonymity was personified by Leroy Fer and the stunning official statistical lack of a foul by Nigel de Jong in the 77 minutes he was on the pitch. Daley Blind, meanwhile, was more than once confused with his dad, possibly as much to do with playing at the same pace as his Dutch international dad Danny would now as any understandable Danny/Daley confusion.
Currently on the Dutch coaching staff, Danny will be the Dutch coach after next, which might extend junior’s international career if it gets that far. Blind senior replaces Guus Hiddink after Euro 2016, a disbelieving Phillips told a disbelieving audience, although “they’ve sacked their next coach already?” was what the audience probably heard. Up front, the Netherlands were, of course, a different option, with plenty of international goals about the place, even if Ratcliffe seemed insistent that every Dutch attacking player had scored 22. Arjen Robben operated on a different footballing planet, at least until a surprise late impact from the Welsh bench. And he should have scored more than once – one effort “taking a deflection” which Phillips & Ratcliffe took some minutes to recognise as a fantastic clearance by Chris Gunther. Meanwhile, Daryl Janmaat occasionally got forward from right-back, which instantly labelled him “the Dutch Dani Alves.” Yet after 31 minutes, Phillips rightly noted that it was becoming “like a training game” for the Dutch, and that “Van Persie’s been quiet.”
So, on 31 minutes 35 seconds, Van Persie fired in a rasping drive from a tight angle, Wales keeper Wayne Hennessey saved it with his right knee and the loose ball made its way to Robben’s left foot and then the net. And Van Persie nearly made it two-nil moments later from another Janmaat/Alves cross. Nice bit of tempting fate, there, Rob. The second half was made an enticing prospect only by BBC pitchside reporter Ian Hunt announcing the likely appearance from the Welsh bench of “Emlyn Hughes.” The Dutch TV cameras focused on Van Persie’s various stretches and grimaces without drawing comment from Phillips, who was more interested in how Emyr Huws (to whom Hunt was referring) would add a second Welsh speaker to the midfield (Phillips: “That’ll confuse the Dutch.” Ratcliffe: “That’ll confuse us.”).
Three events lifted the second half from its general stupor. Substitute Jermaine Easter nearly scored with his first touch as the Dutch defence dozed off at a throw-in. The introduction of Fulham’s George Williams galvanised the Welsh, as he threatened a wonder goal with his first run/stumble through a panicking rearguard and turned up at right-back seconds later to solve some emerging problems there. Then, on 76 minutes, having ignored/forgotten the lessons of his first-half fate-tempting masterclass, Phillips said Spain, the Netherlands’ first opponents in Brazil, “won’t exactly be quaking in their boots.” Sneijder to Robben to Lens…two-nil. Well done again, Rob. “Can we have Rob Phillips doing our match commentaries in Brazil?” Dutch boss Louis Van Gaal might have been writing on his notepad as the cameras showed him still sitting in the dug-out some moments after the final whistle, letting Phillips wonder aloud: “When will we see Van Gaal in the Premier League? That’s the big question.” When Manchester United play their first game, perhaps?
Without Van Persie, whose attempts to play down his groin injury here have had mixed results, the Dutch may be sunk. Van Gaal may have rid the squad of the internal divisions which have disfigured most campaigns since the watching Johan Cruyff was the world’s best, and most argumentative, player. But such unity could be threatened if Lens keeps ruining colleagues’ good work with his Filippo Inzaghi-esque non-appreciation of the offside law. And it will do well to survive the defence’s greater ability to pass the buck than the ball. Wales’ propensity for giving up possession had ex-Evertonian Ratcliffe in a rage that wiped out any remaining hint of his native Flintshire in his Scouse accent (and his “Chris Gunther” was Jamie Carragher-plus). But that masked the fact that the Dutch were often as bad.
That said, World Cup group opponents Chile took even longer than Uruguay to break down a Northern Ireland side on their “plucky territory” tour and needed a clearly-offside 79th-minute goal to do so after Chilean keeper Johnny Herrera’s wonder-save kept out Conor McLaughlin’s first-half header. And the dangers of reading much into these late warm-ups are inherent. I mean, Italy wouldn’t draw 1-1 in a World Cup Finals match against Luxembourg, who were yesterday one place below New Zealand in the FIFA rank…what’s that?…oh…yeah… Nor would Ecuador be semi-humbled by minnows England…
But while Phillips was tempting fate to Olympic-Gold standard with that comment about Spain’s non-quaking boots, he was right.
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