Game over for Dutch as exit looks inevitable
HOLLAND 1 GERMANY 2:THE EUROPEAN Championship is unremitting. Germany may have been a better-balanced side, but the match still tilted when Robin van Persie trimmed the Dutch deficit to 2-1. The score, however, was not to alter further. Germany lead the group with six points, but Holland, with none at all, still have some prospect of advancing to the quarter-finals.
The antagonism that the Dutch still feel for a nation that invaded their country during the second World war finds expression in football. People of a certain age will remember Ronald Koeman pretending to wipe his backside with the jersey Olaf Thon had swapped at the end of Holland’s semi-final win over West Germany at this tournament in 1988.
Animosity may have receded to an extent, but this match was still set to have a rare intensity that caused the early anguish for Holland. Following the defeat by Denmark, their immediate purpose was to survive the group phase. They would have known before kick-off that Portugal had overcome the Danes.
This group was proving as hard-fought as anticipated. The tension was never likely to falter. Germany hit the post as early as the eighth minute with a volley from Mesut Ozil that also brought a partial save by Maarten Stekelenburg. By then Van Persie had faltered when allowed an opportunity and sent his finish direct to the goalkeeper.
If the Arsenal forward was ill-at-ease, he is not alone in finding it as hard to conquer nerves as it is to elude centre backs. But the opener from Germany in the 24th minute demanded confidence and technique. It was too easy for Bastian Schweinsteiger to pass the ball straight through the middle. Mario Gomez reacted beautifully, spinning to shoot beyond Stekelenburg.
Holland’s angst would have bitten deep then with a recognition that they were being outplayed at that stage. There is little mercy in the tournament. This continental tournament can take pride in its intensity while it is still limited to 16 countries, but anxious coaches must wish there were more room for error. This match posed a great challenge.
The aim was simply to play well in defiance of the stresses of the match and the overtones that this fixture carries. There are, too, expectations that have to be endured by footballers and their managers. Germany and Holland are, respectively, ranked third and fourth in the world. Spain lead that table from Uruguay but doubts remain as to whether the European and world champions can shake off the fatigue that comes with so much achievement.
In essence, the Germans and Dutch see a marvellous opportunity at this tournament if they could just survive the rigours of Group B. Holland found it hard before the interval to demonstrate that they were peers of the Germans. Joachim Low’s men were easily identifiable as the bunch who won all 10 of their qualifiers for Euro 2012.
The misleading solace for Holland, such as it was, lay in the delayed ruthlessness of the Germans. In practice, they understood the rich potential of counter-attacks when their opponents were obliged to take risks if they were to escape a second defeat. The execution was ideal for the next goal. Schweinsteiger slid a pass from the right into the path of Gomez, whose crushing drive flew past Stekelenburg.
The lead could have been greater but it did not appear then that Germany would rue the occasional bout of wastefulness. Holland were unrecognisable as the side who had improved so much under Bert van Marwijk’s management. They could not reach the stability that would have been a start in countering expert opponents.
Recoveries are not impossible but they are hard to engineer in a tournament at such a pitch. Holland would have understood that in the wake of the Denmark game but the decisiveness of Germany in those opening 45 minutes had been unanswerable.
There seemed nothing left to lose for Holland after half-time. The introduction of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Rafael van der Vaart was intended to add the sort of edge that might test he opposition. But the principal difficulty lay in keeping this contest taut.
There was a danger that Holland would gradually be drained of whatever traces of optimism were still left in them as Germany were diligent, striving to attack if only to drain a little more hope out of the opposition.
Even their defender Mats Hummels demanded two saves in quick succession from Stekelenburg. Some of the tension went out of the game – with Germany confident of the points and Holland seemingly convinced of a now inevitable defeat.
But Holland had not despaired. The gap was closed to 2-1 by Van Persie’s drive from the left. Belatedly, tension returned to the night.