This feature is a part of RETEUROSPECTIVE
It was a Dutch disaster in Amsterdam as the Netherlands suffered repeated jitters from the penalty spot to lose out to a dogged Italy in this semi-final clash. The Dutch, having almost embarrassingly dominated possession throughout, squandered two glorious opportunities from the penalty spot in normal time, and three more in the penalty shootout to miss out on a place in the European Championship final for the first time in 12 years.
Instead, Italy stole the glory, suffocating the Dutch into submission and capitalising on the fortune they were handed by their benevolent hosts.
Such an outcome had seemed far from likely in a match that Oranje had dominated throughout. Italy had made two changes from the side that comfortably beat Romania in the quarter-finals, with Alessandro Del Piero and Luigi Di Biagio coming in for Francesco Totti and injured Antonio Conte. The Dutch, so rampant in their destruction of Yugoslavia four days ago, made just one change with Giovanni van Bronckhorst replacing Artur Numan.
Amidst a euphoric, expectant atmosphere in the Amsterdam Arena, the orange-clad crowds bopped along with the giant plastic inflatable players dancing away behind the goals at each end of the pitch, eagerly anticipating another invigorating display from their heroes.
Right from the start, it appeared their hopes were to be fulfilled as the Netherlands tore into the Italians. As early as the third minute, a delicate lobbed pass from Dennis Bergkamp put Phillip Cocu through on goal. Cocu prodded that chance over the bar, and soon Bergkamp too went close, first heading wide and then firing against the post with Francesco Toldo in the Italian goal beaten.
Positivity still poured forth though, and when Gianluca Zambrotta was sent off in the 34th minute for a second yellow card following a series of clumsy, niggly fouls, there seemed little doubt that the irrepressible Dutch attacking play would eventually make the breakthrough.
Italy’s ploy to unsettle the Dutch by hassling and clipping their wings seemed to have backfired spectacularly. A mere four minutes after Zambrotta’s departure, the perfect opportunity was handed to the Dutch when Alessandro Nesta pulled Patrick Kluivert’s shirt, and the Netherlands were awarded their first penalty of the evening.
Frank De Boer stepped up to the mark, having already scored a decisive spot-kick in his country’s edgy, opening match of the tournament when his conversion beat the Czech Republic in the final minute. Here, though, with the chance for what must surely have been a decisive lead even at this early stage, given the Dutch dominance, his effort lacked the same clinical nature, allowing Toldo to dive to his left and save magnificently.
It was a sign of things to come and as Oranje heads dropped, the Italian’s battened down the hatches. As the second half wore on, Italy did at least attempt a slightly more positive approach, notably once Totti had joined the fray from the bench. It was without really threatening, however, and just left more space for the vibrant Dutch to exploit.
Another good passing move resulted in Mark Iuliano scything down Edgar Davids as he sprinted past him in the box. Kluivert took over the penalty duties from De Boer but the outcome was the same: the striker hit the post having sent Toldo the wrong way as another golden opportunity went begging.
Rather than wilting, the Dutch poured forward in an effort to clinch the match before extra-time would be needed. The constant pressure brought little other than a handful of speculative efforts, however. Indeed, it was Italy who could have won it in injury-time when Marco Delvecchio raced clear only to be denied by Edwin van der Sar, preventing what would have been a travesty at that point given the way the game had played out.
In extra-time, the home crowd and players seemed to become increasingly wracked with nerves the longer the game remained goalless. Again, it was the Italians who came the closest to scoring the decisive golden goal, however; Delvecchio denied again by the alert Van der Sar early in extra-time to deny what could again have been a classic sucker punch. Kluivert spurned the Netherlands’ best chance of a winner, having surged through the tiring Italian defence only to drag his shot agonisingly wide.
When it came to penalty shootout, it all felt inevitable. Toldo, having been imperious throughout, seemed almost unbeatable by this stage. Italy, no strangers to the trauma of shootout failure through their last decade of World Cup woes, appeared certain to prevail against the Dutch, any semblance of belief now seemingly having abandoned Oranje by this stage.
Italy scored their first three penalties from Di Biagio, Gianluca Pessotto and Totti, while Frank de Boer reprised his earlier failure to do so again before Jaap Stam blasted his wastefully high, leaving the Dutch on the brink.
Kluivert may have atoned for his earlier miss but his expression on walking back to the centre-circled told its own story, even if a brief glimmer of hope was offered when Paolo Maldini missed. But when Toldo confirmed the seemingly inevitable in saving Paul Bosvelt’s apprehensive effort to secure a 3-1 shootout win, it was almost a mercy to end the bereft Dutch players’ penalty pain.
The stadium went numb with despair, while those of us watching on were denied what would have been surely the ideal final in Rotterdam in three days’ time, with the extravagant Dutch playing host to the exuberant French – victors over Portugal in yesterday’s other semi-final. Having had a taste in the hugely entertaining group match played between the two just over a week ago, it is both ours and football’s loss that there won’t be a repeat in the final.
Instead, the Italians return to the final for the first time since they lifted the trophy in 1968, with the chance to gain revenge on the French for knocking then out of the World Cup two years ago on penalties. Their progression came thanks to a dogged defensive display inspired by Nesta, Fabio Cannavaro and a magnificent performance from man-of-the-match Toldo.
For all of the Dutch creativity and attractive movement, the brick-wall of defensive organisation proved impossible to overcome. It will be an intriguing final, if not the aesthetically pleasing one many had hoped for. Many will lament the loss of the Dutch, but in truth they only have themselves to blame.
By Aidan Williams @yad_williams