And it’s less than 24 hours to go before Holland and Spain kick off for the Euro 2012 finals.
A revenge game for the Dutch after their tragic loss in 2010.
But, coach Bert van Marwijk said this in the press conference after the last practice: “We already took revenge. We took in on ourselves. The fans and media never liked our gameplay at the World Cup and the whole squad plus the staff were keen to make a strong impression here. To return to Total Football. We are very hungry and have all the desire to win this finals, but if we end up losing, this Euros does feel better than the World Cup already.”
Let’s track back a bit.
1. The Preparation for this tournament
Bert kept his cards close to his chest this time around. He had some intense meetings with the key players as he realised that some players expected to have a better position in the hierarchy. Oranje did lose a couple of warm up games, but Bert didn’t care. “I wanted the boys to relax, feel good and to find their feet amongst themselves. In the meantime, I worked with Philip Cocu on the mental state of our lads.” Key in the preparation was Bert’s meeting with Klaas Jan, explaining him well before the tournament that Robin would be the key striker to start off with. And he did the same with Rafael. Van der Vaart was key in the Sweden qualification game we won and expected a starting berth as a holding midfielder. Bert flew to London in May on a mission and unbeknownst to many, he asked Frank de Boer to come along. Frank and Rafael go way back and Bert got Rafael on board for the new mission.
With Emanuelson as left back ( with Stijn Schaars as stand-in) and young Nick Viergever in the squad as central defender, Bert felt the balance was there. “I was really tempted to take Jetro Willems along, but I felt it was better to put Urby to the test. With his experience, he can handle this better than a rookie 18-year old. Willems’ time will come…” Also, Fred Bouma didn’t make the cut. Bouma: “I would have pulled out myself if Bert would have selected me. I was never really fit and for these top games in a short time span, you need to be 100%.”
Bert also added: “Mark played in a different role for AC Milan. Much more static. We want to press forward and play Dutch style football so I do fear for Mark’s fitness. I spoke to him about it and despite him being our skipper and being important off the pitch, he might have to accept a different role.”
2. The Denmark Game
Within 5 minutes of play, Holland silenced the world with how they burst into the game against the poor Danes. It was Urby who found space in the first minute to push up and test the goalie from 30 yards out. Bert gave Afellay a starting position on the wing, with Van Persie centrally up front and Robben on the right. Nigel de Jong and Van Bommel played in midfield with Sneijder as the playmaker on the left side of the field. His pass to Afellay caught the Denmark defense off guard and with a typical futsol / practice goal, Van Persie opened his account. A low pass to the first post, and a clean inside foot finish did the rest. Oranje kept on swinging and a neat combination between Robben and Robin got the Bayern man into the box… Despite Sneijder and Afellay showing up for support, Robben hammered the ball in the near top corner and within 15 minutes, Denmark was down for the count: 2-0. When Heitinga found Sneijder with a long ball, he passed the ball to Van Persie, who in typical Arsenal style used his right foot to position the ball in front of the left and the goalie never even saw the ball. Van Persie’s second and Oranje’s third…
The Danes were all over the place and with 32 minutes on the clock their goalie gifted the ball to Robben – put under pressure – and again, with some team mates confusing the defense with some good runs, the Robben left did the job. Curling the ball past the goalie, inside post. Both Robin and Robben on a hattrick.
Before the Robben goal however, Denmark did benefit from a mistake in defence when Krohn Dehli found a way into the Oranje box. And while Heitinga allowed to former Ajax prospect to cut the ball away, it was Stekelenburg who couldn’t close his legs in time and Denmark got an early consolation goal…
Bert started some fresh legs in the second half. Afellay was struggling after 45 minutes ( to be expected) and Huntelaar came to join Van Persie up front. Van der Vaart came to replace Van Bommel who was starting to look less fresh as well. In the second half, the game was played already, but the team clearly wanted Huntelaar on the score sheet as well.
A tremendous outside foot pass by Sneijder reached the Schalke man who cleverly chipped the ball over the unexpecting goalie: 5-1. Van Persie and Huntelaar walked back to their own half with their arms around each other shoulders… The former Feyenoord talent finally got his hattrick when Sneijder reached him with a through pass into the box and his diagonal low shot was a perfect executed strike, with his whole body in perfect balance: 6-1.
Late in the second half, a high ball into the box for Huntelaar was handled by a Danish defender twice and the ref even joked after the game he considered giving two penalties to the Dutch. Van Persie is normally the first penalty takes in the squad but he really wanted his buddy Robben to overcome his penalty anxiety so Arjen got this hattrick as well: 7-1.
It did become a bit of a Sunday morning park game with Sneijder and Van der Vaart going for goal from every possible angle but with 7-1 the final score, Holland immediately instilled some fear into the rest of the pack at this Euro2012 tournament.
3. The Germany game
A lot can be said always about our games against Germany. For this match, the only thing the Dutch thought about was to beat so we could win the whole thing and to beat them to set the record straight of that 3-0 loss in the friendly…
Holland started very strong again and like in the 1974 finals, it took some time before the Germans actually touched the leather. Mark van Bommel started again and his early ball over the top released Van Persie who didn’t have any trouble beating Neuer with a cool inside foot placed ball in the far corner… Holland did it again! Full on attack from the word “go” and an early lead. Germany looks a bit shocked and only 5 minutes later, Van Persie – still on fire after his sensational season – is sent away again and again hits the ball in the far corner past a flabbergasted Neuer!! 2-0 in the first ten minutes!
Germany gets back into the game with an Ozil snapshot hitting the post and ten minutes later a defensive mistake by Holland allows Gomez to score the 2-1. His first touch of the game, it seems. Holland becomes a little complacent and Germany turns up the gas. Van Bommel has difficulty closing gaps and Schweinsteiger finds Gomez yet again… The Bayern striker hits it well but Stekelenburg doesn’t look sharp: 2-2.
In the second half, Huntelaar and Van der Vaart come on again ( for Narsingh, who couldn’t impress and Van Bommel who looks spent) and the game flows better. Van Persie on the right wing, Robben on the left. And it’s his cross low to Van Persie which offers the Arsenal striker a second hattrick. His low kick in the corner defeats Neuer and Holland is 3-2 up!
Germany is clearly beaten and it’s their central defender Hummels who gets the best opportunity in the second half as no one picks him up. But Stekelenburg is doing his job.
The Oranje attacks are cutting through the Germany defense and Sneijder gets a clear shot on goal after a good Robben dribble. Instead of hitting the ball first time, he cuts the ball away, allowing Boateng to slide past and Sneijder can find the best corner of the goal to place his ball. Neuer doesn’t even dive for it: 4-2!
Then Van Persie scores his fourth after what is probably one of the best little plays of the tournament so far. All one touch football. Heitinga to Van der Vaart. Vaart to Sneijder. Sneijder to van Persie. tick tick tick. And Van Persie decides to have a go at goal. Why not. He hits the ball through the legs of Hummels and Neuer does see the ball a tad late. With Robin’s right foot. 5-2 and the media are convinced. This is clearly the new Euro Champs.
Bert, after the game: “Let’s not get too excited. Germany was clearly not too strong. Ozil, Schweinsteiger, Khedira, Muller…. they don’t look fit. And their coach made some strange decisions. But when you create many chances like we do and you convert them, you win games. It’s a simple as that. Now we want to beat Portugal. We have scores to settle.”
4. The Portugal game
For this game, Bert decided to let Narsingh and Afellay on the bench ( “it’s a lot to ask of young players, to play 2 top games in four days) and started Huntelaar and Van der Vaart. Van Bommel started on the bench and Raf skippered the game.
Portugal needed a win but they couldn’t make the play even if they wanted it. Oranje bossed the game from the start and it was captain Van der Vaart scoring his goal after 20 minutes of play. The game turned a bit cagey with Oranje trying to press and create but Portugal was getting better and better on the counter. Again, it looked like we can not really kill games off if we don’t really have to. C Ronaldo scored his first goal ( too little too late) for Portugal but in the second half, Holland took the reigns again. Ron Vlaar scored his second goal for Oranje after a precision cross by Sneijder. The tall Feyenoord man was unmarked and hammered the ball to the far corner, via the ground. Unstoppable. With 2-1 down, Portugal had to take the game to Holland and got the equaliser via another C Ronaldo counter. The Dutch squad did seem to get some agitation as a result and it was – again – skipper Van der Vaart who led the way. This time using his right foot, he curled the ball again in the far corner. Like a mirrored copy of his first goal. The ball hit the inside of the post and made sure Holland got the 3 points and could avoid the Spanish until the finals, by winning this group.
Germany finished second in the group and would eventually be beaten by boring Spain.
5. The Greek Game
From now onwards, Holland was focused to get to the finals. The Greek were merely an annoying stumbling block. Holland played with Robben-Hunter-Persie upfront and Vaart-DeJong-Sneijder in midfield. The Greek had their moments breaking away and trying to put Holland under pressure and after Samaras was sent off for collecting two yellows as a result of continious snapping at heels, the Greek blocked the goal off with all they had.
It took a pinpoint cross by Sneijder on the head of Huntelaar to break the spell and with a disappointing and forgettable 1-0 win, Holland faced Italy in the semi finals…
Bert: “I have learned to be flexible and I have sort of experienced my coaching-version of total football. I need to be able to change and adapt and the team has responded really well to my progression as a coach. We won ugly this time against the Greeks and I guess in every successful campaign you are allowed one ugly game. We had ours.”
6. The Italy game
Italy had progressed with great football. A simple system, really. Two brillant strikers, one brilliant playmaker, one crazy goalie and 7 anonymous workers. Asked if he would change anything to take Balotelli and Pirlo out of the game, Bert smiled: “You’ll see.”
The tactical wizard played Kevin Strootman against Italy and used him to guard Pirlo and to make Pirlo follow him, instead of the other way around. In order to contain Balotelli, Bert used Ron Vlaar. And the trick he played was this: he sent Ron to the hairdresser and made him come onto the pitch with the exact same hairdo as the childish Balotelli. This shook the tall striker visible and whenever Vlaar won a duel against the flamboyant City man, Vlaar would assume the stance Balotelli used after beating England. With him out of the picture and with Heitinga torturing Cassano by constantly being in his face like a bag of cocaine, Holland got the better of Italy. When Pirlo was subbed after an hour of play, Strootman could be named Man of the Match already and it was his run into the Italy box that gave Sneijder an opportunity to play the pass of the tournament: he hit the ball behind his standing leg which such a curve that it bounced off the referee’s head into Strootman’s stride. His shot was bloked by a nervy Buffon but Hunter was at hand to slot the ball home: 1-0, with only 15 minutes to go.
Italy started to play all balls on Balotelli allowing Vlaar to easily grow into a force of nature and it was a counter attack Italy-style that sealed the deal: a long header forward by Vlaar, Robben on full speed past two Italian defenders and wonderful pass to Van Persie who scored his 8th goal of the tournament and made sure that the Italians could convincingly engage in their Teatrico Dell Arte antics. Balotelli was red carded after hitting Vlaar smack in the face and Prandelli asked Van Marwijk after the game who his taylor was…
Holland reached the finals yet again. With fresh, total football.
I would like to read your version of the final game against Spain :-)….