This feature is a part of RETEUROSPECTIVE
The first weekend of Euro 2008 came to an end with one of the heavyweight clashes of the group stages as the Netherlands faced Italy in Bern. A goalless draw between France and Romania earlier in the evening had handed both teams the chance to really stamp their authority in Group C and, in the golden haze of dusk that so often accompanies the first half of a summer tournament showpiece, the Oranje shone the brightest.
With an ankle ligament injury relegating talismanic captain Fabio Cannavaro to a cheerleader’s role on the bench, the world champions were significantly weaker at the back, both on paper and on the pitch. Andrea Barzagli deputised in the centre of defence, being just one of two players under the age of 30 in the Italian eleven.
The Dutch had fitness problems of their own and, while the likes of Clarence Seedorf and Mark van Bommel had opted out of selection for the tournament, Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie were not at 100 percent. Instead, Ruud van Nistelrooy was supported by Real Madrid teammate Wesley Sneijder and Rafael van der Vaart, whose performances over the summer would see him become a Blanco too.
It was Van Nistelrooy who would be presented with the first major chance of the game, finding himself in behind the Italian back four and one-on-one with Gianluigi Buffon. As he attempted to round Buffon, the usually clinical striker was knocked off balance and unable to guide his effort goalwards. Swedish referee Peter Frojdfeldt waived any Dutch claims for a penalty.
Minutes later, Van Nistelrooy did punish Italy, though, converting Sneijder’s cross-cum-shot at the back post. This time, it was Italy’s turn to surround the officials, incensed that Van Nistelrooy hadn’t been flagged for offside. Those watching on TV would’ve agreed, with replays showing clear daylight between the 31-year-old and those in blue shirts when Sneijder struck the ball.
Just a few moments later, the Dutch doubled their lead in thrilling fashion. Clinging on to the back post at an Italian corner, Giovanni van Bronckhorst cleared the ball off the line and set off into the open green grass in front of him. In a piercing counter-attack, the Barcelona man bore down on Van der Vaart’s sprayed pass before switching the play to find Dirk Kuyt on the right, who popped the ball back to Sneijder in the penalty area.
In a move that you wouldn’t have looked out of place in a taekwondo gym, the diminutive number 10 lifted his right foot to poke the ball past Buffon at his near post and ripple the back of the black netting. Italy boss Roberto Donadoni’s despairing look on the bench was polarised by the delight of his counterpart, former teammate and occasional golf partner, Marco van Basten, in the Dutch dugout.
Both Antonio Di Natale and Van Nistelrooy had the option to reduce or enlarge the scoreline respectively before half time, but their attempts were matched by first Edwin van der Sar and then Buffon. The Netherlands went into the break with history in their hands, leading a team they hadn’t beaten in the eight meetings since Arie Haan booked their place in the 1978 World Cup final in Buenos Aires.
However, Italy emerged back into the Swiss night armed for battle, with fresh impetus going forward. The beauty and the beast of Andrea Pirlo and Gennaro Gattuso began to get a grip over the Dutch little-and-large midfield pairing of Nigel de Jong and Orlando Engelaar. Alessandro del Piero entered the fray shortly after the hour mark to partner the increasingly isolated Luca Toni up front. The Juventus veteran had now played at four separate European Championships, equalling the record held by Lothar Matthäus and someone he was sharing a pitch with in Buffon.
Del Piero’s influence on proceedings was felt immediately as he tested Van der Sar with a stinging shot before crashing another strike just over the crossbar. More chances would fall the Italians’ way too, as first Toni and then Fabio Grosso couldn’t beat the inspired retiring shot-stopper between the sticks. Only a month after Moscow, Nicolas Anelka knew precisely how they felt.
As the clock ticked towards 80 minutes with Holland’s two-goal lead still intact, the Azzurri were given a free-kick in prime Pirlo position. Del Piero picked up the ball but, once his long-haired teammate approached, he soon acquiesced. A few short steps was all the run-up required, as Pirlo lasered his effort over the wall and towards the top corner but, out of the night sky, Van der Sar’s gloved hand appeared, successfully preventing the Italians from making an indent on his clean sheet in emphatic fashion.
Centimetres were the difference between an Italian lifeline, but the acres of space left behind Pirlo was soon full of scampering Dutch players. It was van Bronckhorst and Kuyt who won the race once more and, after the latter’s dinked effort had been stopped by Buffon, he picked out the former in the area, whose downwards header brought the Netherlands’ goal tally up to three. A 90-minute match decided in a matter of seconds.
The standout result ensured that Van Basten’s men were earmarked as a force to be reckoned with over the coming weeks. Italy, meanwhile, have some work to do.
By Billy Munday @billymunday08