Denmark, in fairness, made themselves rather more difficult to break down than Australia had. The Dutch started positively enough, with van Persie the lone striker in their 4-2-3-1 formation that all the most fashionable teams play these days, but without the injured Arjen Robben the 3 behind him lacked the pace or creative spark to really slice the defence open. The passing was all a bit close and they were restricted to a few tame shots from middle-range and a string of corners.
As the half went on and the Danes looked increasingly untroubled they started to break out and threaten to take the lead themselves. Nicklas Bendtner turned out to be fit after all despite them telling us he wouldn’t be – or at least he was fit enough to play the first hour – and he got his head to a good cross at the backpost in the 27th minute only to see it bounce wide of the post. It wasn’t a sitter but as good a chance as anyone had in the first half. Kahlenberg and the increasingly-veteran Dennis Rommedahl also had half-chances from an angle which at least forced Stekelenburg to make the saves. For Holland, van Persie finally got something of a sight of goal a couple of minutes before half-time, but again was shooting from ana angle and hit it wide of the near post.
Other than a two-footed challenge from Nigel de Jong that went entirely unpunished, there wasn’t an awful lot else to talk about in the first half. Even the commentary was uncontroversial. Jon Champion is ITV’s best commentator, and Craig Burley was decent enough alongside him, even making me smile a couple of times – firstly by being so pleased with himself for having done his homework on the qualifying games that he recited the lot in the second minute (it’s a bit like cramming for an exam, this commentary lark, you can forget it as soon as you’ve said it); and then by admitting that he’d had “a nice cup of tea” in the dressing room after his sending off against Morocco in the 1998 World Cup.
Southgate and Chiles got the Commentary Bingo game going at half-time though: “Almost like a game of chess” said both. A particularly annoying cliché for me that one – my games of chess are wild and reckless and far more interesting than anything that had happened here. In fact if the second half hadn’t produced any more incident then I might as well have just sacked off the match report and showed you one of them.
But less than a minute into the second half, we had a goal. Albeit a bit of an odd one. Van Persie sent in a cross from the left, defender Simon Poulsen got to it, and although he sclaffed the header in a peculiar direction it still wasn’t going goalwards until it hit the back of teammate Daniel Agger and deflected in to give Holland the lead. TV gave Poulsen the own goal, which seemed a bit harsh. (Of course, the need to have every goal credited to someone at all is a media-driven thing, personally I’d be happy for a goal like that to be unattributed.)
From thereon the Dutch coasted. Again, there wasn’t much incident, this time it was the Danes who couldn’t find any way to goal. Bendtner might look remarkably clumsy at times, but Denmark were ineffective up front once he went off. At the other end, van Persie wasted a better chance, taking too long with his first touch when played through on the inside left; but it was through a similar route that they extended their lead with five minutes left. Substitue Eljero Elia cut in from the left to meet Sneijder’s through ball, and though Thomas Sorensen may have got a hand to the shot and helped it onto the post, the rebound popped up nicely for the onrushing Dirk Kuyt. Even he couldn’t miss. They came very close to a third goal in the dying minutes when another substitute, Ibrahim Affelay, poked a left-wing cross past Sorensen, only to see Simon Poulsen start his redemption process with a terrific goalline clearance. That was the last meaningful bit of action, and Holland took the three points and retained their strictly unofficial world title.
It was a big game for fans of this format – that’s the one you can win only by beating the existing title holders as in boxing or chess. Although this has been retrospectively plotted back to the first international match in 1872, the idea only dates from a few years ago, and the reigning title holders haven’t been present at either of the last two World Cups. Holland have held it since November 2008, however, so today was the first time a World Cup match has knowingly doubled as an unofficial title match. I say “knowingly” – whether anyone involved knew of it I’m rather doubtful, but personally I rather like the concept and would love to see it catch on to at least to the extent that the teams knew when they were playing for it.
The Danes may have missed out on their chance to win this, but will still feel they have a reasonable chance of qualifying through the group. They need Bendtner to stay fit – and to have a couple of his brilliant days rather than a couple of his clownish ones – given their lack of other options in attack, but nothing in the Japan v Cameroon game I’ve got half an eye on now looks like it needs to frighten them too much.
By the same token it’s hard to see the Netherlands being much tested in the group stages. Elia looked very lively when he came on and may challenge some of the older guard for a starting spot, but like Denmark they’re heavily dependent on their own Arsenal striker in van Persie. He was voted Man of the Match today by visitors to the ITV website – the announcement of which result was met by a prolonged and volume-speaking silence from both Champion and Burley – but didn’t look at his best any more than most of his teammates. We may have to wait for the knock-out stages, and a possible quarter-final against Brazil, before we can really find out how good they can be.
Thanks, once again, to Historical Football Kits for the use of their graphics.