Five thoughts from the Netherlands’ 4-1 thrashing of World Cup ’06 runner-up France in Bern:
• Something absolutely thrilling is happening in Euro 2008. Think about it: In the span of five days the Dutch outscored the two participants in the 2006 World Cup final by the absurd margin of 7-1. Seven to one! Four years after Greece rode cynical, negative soccer all the way to the European championship, this majestic Holland team is leading a parade of entertaining teams (including Portugal, Spain and Croatia) on a mission of sorts: to show that attacking soccer can be rewarded after all. I know it’s only two games, but Marco van Basten’s side is giving itself a chance to go down as one of the most memorable teams in soccer history, the kind that people can remember decades down the road and have a smile come to their faces.
• Who needs the prevent defense? Van Basten completely out-coached France’s overly cautious Raymond Domenech. When Holland was clinging to a 1-0 lead, most coaches would have put in defensive-minded subs. Not Van Basten, who threw on an attacker (Arjen Robben) for a
defender defensive player (Orlando Engelaar) and an attacker (Robin van Persie) for an attacker (Dirk Kuyt). The result: goals by both Robben and Van Persie. As for Domenech, all you need to know is that his two defensive midfielders (Claude Makélélé and Jérémy Toulalan) were still on the field at the final whistle. Guess which French player had the ball fall to him in the box for a near-perfect chance in the final minutes? That’s right: Makélélé, who muffed it.
• Holland just does stuff that makes your jaw drop. Let me count the moments: Ruud van Nistelrooy’s remarkable move to save a ball out of bounds, pirouetting over the ball at speed and splitting two French defenders for the no-look pass that sprung Robben on the break for Goal No. 2. (Who said RVN doesn’t have ball skills?) Wesley Sneijder’s individual brilliance, turning and firing a sick bender from distance past Gregory Coupet for Goal No. 4. And Robben’s physics-defying shot for Goal No. 3, overwhelming Lilian Thuram and Coupet from an impossibly-acute angle just 12 seconds after the kickoff following France’s only goal. I quit trying to convert American soccer-haters years ago—why bother? There’s not nearly as many of them as people think—but if you’re new to the sport and open-minded about learning more, this Dutch outfit is the real thing, the ideal team to follow and admire.
• Not to jump the gun, but my prediction of a Portugal-Holland final is still looking pretty good. Now watch the Germans go eliminate Portugal in the quarters.
• France and Italy now have to hope Holland comes to play against Romania. The Dutch, who’ve already won Group C, will have almost no incentive to win in the final group game (other than to keep the good vibe going). But if Romania (2 points) beats Holland then it won’t matter what happens when France meets Italy (at the same time) in a rematch of the World Cup final. Both teams would be out of the tournament. Welcome to life in the Group of Death. Then again, after seeing the past two games I just can’t envision Marco van Basten and his team ever taking the foot off the gas. It’s not in their make-up.
Through-balls: How can the referees call dubious penalties for off-the-ball physical play in the box but refuse to blow the whistle when Holland’s Andre Ooijer hits Thierry Henry’s shot with his outstretched hand early in the second half? Let’s put things in perspective, though: Holland deserved this victory, and Henry misfired on a lob he should have finished five minutes later ... The entire French left side was miserable. Florent Malouda and Patrice Evra just didn’t show up for this game ... What was Domenech thinking bringing on inexperienced forward Bafetimbi Gomis (only his fourth cap) in the 60th minute instead of sniper Karim Benzema, who has far outshone Gomis as a finisher in Ligue 1? Baffling ... You know, France didn’t play all that badly today. Much better than against Romania. Franck Ribéry was dangerous and Henry did have a sterling finish at speed for the lone goal, but for all the chances that Les Bleus created they sure didn’t finish very well. It might help to have someone who’s capable of popping off a menacing header in the box.
Can Holland find a way to keep this up, or is it destined to follow the equally memorable 2006 Argentines into knockout-round disappointment? Post your comments below, and we’ll be back tomorrow with a Blog update ...