• 10:30 AM ET  06.10
Four things on my mind heading into today’s Group D openers Spain vs. Russia (noon ET, ESPN2) and Sweden vs. Greece (2:45 ET, ESPN2):

Is there any way today’s games can live up to Holland-Italy? Probably not, though I’d love to see these four teams take Holland’s three-goal gem as a challenge. I certainly don’t expect that from defending champ Greece, but the Spaniards are capable of throwing down the gauntlet, especially if David Villa is healthy up front alongside Fernando Torres. I’m still trying to figure out why Raúl isn’t even on the Spanish roster--and for that matter, how coach Luis Aragonés still has a job, for both his soccer- and non-soccer-related transgressions--but Spain has the talent to win Euro 2008 and finally shed that long-standing choker label.

Holland 3, Italy 0 was a classic display of what this sport can be. In fact, I was so pumped that I went back and watched the entire game again last night. It was just a brilliant example of attacking soccer by the Dutch, who showed that 1) you can indeed be bullish offensively despite using two holding midfielders and 2) the center-forward position isn’t dead yet after all (take a bow, Ruud van Nistelrooy). The Netherlands went out in such a nasty fashion in World Cup ’06, picking up yellow and red cards galore in a horrific second-round exit to Portugal, that I feared positive soccer had lost one of its most glorious proponents. Monday’s epic performance restored my faith--and then some.

Soccer’s version of the Tuck Rule: Van Nistelrooy was correctly ruled onside. Like a lot of media members, I owe Swedish referee Peter Frojdfelt an apology. He got it right on Monday by letting Holland’s first goal stand even though Van Nistelrooy appeared offside. The wrinkle: Italian defender Christian Panucci had been hit by goalie Gigi Buffon seconds earlier and pushed out of bounds beyond the endline, where he was flat on his back. It was a freak play, but as UEFA general secretary David Taylor said on Tuesday, it was the correct interpretation of Law 11: Panucci had to be considered active since he hadn’t been given permission by the referee to leave the field. For me that doesn’t change the fact that Italy was terribly unlucky, though it does make me wonder: If Panucci is ever in that situation again, will he hop up and get back on the field a lot more quickly? (He looked just fine immediately afterward.) My guess is he will. Anyway, we now have soccer’s answer to the NFL’s Tuck Rule, with RVN playing the role of Tom Brady.

Who said there’s no karma in soccer? On second (and third and fourth) viewing of Holland’s first great scoring chance in the 18th minute, it was clear that Buffon made contact with Van Nistelrooy in the box--not with his hands, but rather with his right hip (on RVN’s right foot) as he slid in on the Dutch forward. It was kind of like a shooting foul with the body (instead of the hands) in basketball. Had the stumbling Van Nistelrooy fallen down he would have deserved a penalty, but he fought to stay up, even though it meant the end of the scoring opportunity. How many forwards in the world, Italian or otherwise, would have crumpled in a heap? The vast majority, I’d say.

Through-balls: In case you’re interested, the FIFA website has a helpful link to the Laws of the Game, including an interactive guide to Law 11 (the offside law) set to jaunty music. You can count on the Panucci/Van Nistelrooy episode to be added soon, I’d suspect.

Who do you like in today’s games? I’m going with Spain 1, Russia 1 and Sweden 1, Greece 0. Make sure to check back after both games for blog updates ...


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