When the Groups were announced, one caught the eye. Immediately Romania was ruled out with any chance of qualifying, despite finishing above Holland in qualifying and beating them as well. There is always a ‘Group of Death’ and Raymond Domenech had to call upon a younger group of players in its opening match as the veterans were ruled out by injury and fitness concerns with Henry and Vieira replaced by Benzema and Toulalan respectively. In the crowd Arsene Wenger looked on at his country men and any potential signings with Samir Nasri on the bench.
From the outset France were afforded possession in areas away from the Romanian net, but were closed down in numbers when they moved into advanced positions on the pitch as the Romanians played a counter-attacking game. Ex-Real Madrid president Florentino Perez claimed Makelele couldn’t pass more than three metres, and he certainly proved the Galactico loving Spaniard wrong with a lovely pass that split the Romanian defence to find Malouda, who was blocked by the keeper. Yet perhaps it wasn’t what they needed with the defensive midfielder creating their sporadic chances; the creative Ribery having little influence on the match. Nicolas Anelka tried to keep that attack going but couldn’t provide the cross required for another chance to be fashioned.
Any criticism of a lack of attacking creativity from the central areas of the French side, where two defensive midfielders provided a shield for the defence, was firmly shunned. As France continued to search for an opening, Anelka headed over from a corner mid way through the first half in what was their best chance, although the ball came to him quickly. The Chelsea striker then worked some space on the right flank and decided to shoot from an acute angle rather than cross to Benzema in the box. A fine delivery from the left flank sparked anxiety in the French defence, with two corners creating problems.
This style caused the French forwards to roam and search for the ball in frustration when attacking. Their defensive play lacked any aggression with none of the front six pressing the Romanian defence, who were allowed to play the ball out from the back without any pressure. This complacency added signs of Romania scoring from a set-piece or a swift counter-attack. Malouda was criticised for his efforts (or lack of) in the first half, but showed glimpses of his old Lyon self by twice beating his man and firing over, when the cross was perhaps the better option. At least there was urgency in the French attack. At the other end, Sagnol was booked for hauling down Mutu, who attacked him in a similar fashion.
A decent break occurred for the French as Ribery finally ran in behind the opposition defence and cut back to Benzema as Anelka ran forward to leave some space for his strike partner, whose shot was straight at Lobont. The young attacker, who has attracted the interest of most of Europe’s big guns, did well to run and create some space in from of the goal, but once more his accuracy was far off as he dragged his shot wide. The same pattern of play occurred for the French as they allowed Romania the ball in defence and failed to press them, a major issue in their lack of creativity, thus meaning Bafe Gomis, the ‘new Drogba’, came on for Anelka, reflecting on his explosive style of play.
Yet his inexperience did not help the French attack as he lost the ball in areas where another man would make the right pass or shot. Samir Nasri came on and always wanted the ball and was involved frequently in the closing stages, but none of the attacking players could break through the yellow wall of Romania. The slow tempo had to be raised and the French could not do so as Romania broke and held the ball in the corner winning a free-kick. The free-kick virtually destroyed any hopes of a French win. The Romanians have an organised style which the Dutch and the Italians will also struggle to break down.
Domenech will look to the stars as he attempts to steer his side away from the humiliation that they suffered in the 2002 World Cup, while a 0-0 draw adds to an already low goals to games ratio in a tournament where one would have been forgiven for predicting open matches with bland sides such as England not qualifying.
Romania 0 – 0 France FT
Match Stats can be viewed here….
There is always tension in the Dutch camp, with several past confrontations coming in the days before a major tournament. Clarence Seedorf rejected a call-up on the basis that he wouldn’t feature regularly, while Mark Van Bommel refuses to feature under the stewardship of Van Basten. And a training ground incident invited the media to bring up whispers of a rift between Arsenal’s Van Persie and Real Madrid’s Sneidjer, although it was played down by the latter.
It is fitting that Holland’s camp is united with a game against World Cup winners Italy the ultimate test of character. Their previous forays in International tournaments have handed them the toughest group stage draws such in Euro 2004 ( Germany, Czech Republic and Latvia) or the 2006 World Cup ( Argentina, Ivory Coast and Serbia & Montenegro). They must be cursing their luck this time around as well.
While France’s utilisation of two defensive midfielders was not necessary, Holland’s vulnerable defence means this two-man shield of De Jong and the giant Engelaar is important and fits into their style well where three attacking midfielders support Ruud van Nistlerooy. The use of this new formation has meant they have come in from criticism, most notably from Oranje legend Johan Cruyff, who claims they are abandoning their total football heritage.
A high tempo start from Holland allowed Sneidjer to exhibit some fine touches and a neat turn, but Italy showed their efficiency with Di Natale getting on the end of a long pass but his cross was too pacy for Luca Toni to connect with. Real Madrid’s Dutch maestro nutmegged the Italian defender and fed Van Nistlerooy whose shot was blocked. Van Der Vaart broke soon after a Sneidjer free-kick was locked and shot low at Buffo n, who comfortably saved. Yet the assured passing of Pirlo allowed Italy to gain a footing in the game as Toni headed wide, as Di Natale ran on in hope of connecting to the 39 goal Bayern attacker’s header.
Holland cut open Italy’s defence as Van Nistlerooy ran past Buffon but stumbled and the angle closed to shoot as Donadoni’s side were given another warning. Sneidjer whipped in a dangerous free-kick, which Materazzi just about cleared with Van Nistlerooy lurking. As Van Der Vaart whipped in another ball, Buffon punched and Sneidjer lashed the ball back into the box and Van Nistlerooy tapped it in. Hesitant in his celebration, Van Nistlerooy perhaps knew his offside position but the very contentious goal (a horrendous decision by the linesman) stood as the Italians protested with Luca Toni being booked.
Ex-Arsenal defender Van Bronckhorst cleared off his own line from a Pirlo corner and set up a wonderful counter attack as he ran deep into the Italy half and crossed to the far post where Dirk Kuyt headed back across and the wonderful Sneidjer cleverly hooked the ball over Buffon to double the lead of the Dutch. Di Natale then volleyed from a cross through the legs of Boulahrouz, which goalkeeper Van Der Sar saw late but managed to save at the second attempt having originally fumbled as the Italians gave a reminder of their quality. But their defence shorn of Cannavaro was shaky as Barzagli and Materazzi failed to clear allowing the Dutch to have another attempt on goal.
Van Der Vaart split the Italian defence with a wonderful pass through to Van Nistlerooy, who was brilliantly denied by Buffon, who once again displayed his agility of body and mind. In what was becoming the game of the tournament so far, Italy attempted to hit back as Udinese’s Di Natale fired narrowly over. Yet the striker was lacking any central support from the Milan trio in midfield, who lack the legs to consistently make runs forward unlike possible replacements Roma’s De Rossi and Aquilani.
By bringing on Grosso and Del Piero, Italy attempted to add fresh attacking impetus to their side, with the latter firing in a snap-shot when surrounded by Orange shirts, which was saved comfortably by Dutch Captain Van Der Sar. As Holland looked to defend and play on the break, they brought off Van Nistlerooy for Arsenal’s Robin Van Persie, who was supposed to be a doubt for their opener. Engelaar played a fine pass through to Van Persie, who was onside, but had the ball dummied to him by Van Der Vaart, who was in an offside position.
At the other end Toni broke clear but lifted it high over the goal without his typical composure in a one on one situation. Soon after Grosso broke free and Van Der Sar parried as he did with stunning agility to keep out a brilliant dead ball effort from Pirlo. Immediately, the Dutch broke with typical fluidity and Feyenoord’s Van Bronckhorst cut back to Kuyt whose chip failed but the tireless Liverpool man regained his composure and crossed for the left back to head the ball in amid the despairing lunge of the last defender to kill the game off.
Then the substitute Ibrahim Afellay, a wonderful young prospect who played a large part in PSV Eindhoven’s defeat of Tottenham Hotspur in the UEFA Cup, tricked his man with a stepover and shot against the top of the bar in what would have rounded a wonderful night for Dutch football. Van Persie reminded fans why he is so highly rated by Wenger and Van Basten by squeezing away from three Italian defenders and hitting a fierce shot wide. Yet the Italians had a final chance as Cassano crossed to Toni, who laid the ball off to Ambrosini whose shot deflected agonizingly wide.
A stunning performance by the Dutch defeated the World Cup Winners, yet the created hype may yet work against them. The wonderful attacking duo of Van Der Vaart and Sneidjer created the majority of their chances and were very well complemented by the lively Kuyt and the very hard-working Engelaar and De Jong. Donadoni’s attacking tactics did not give the result the Azzurri were expecting but providing some sumptuous attacking football, with the margins of victory and defeat so slim: an offside decision and two counter-attacks, before which Italy were very close to scoring. The brilliant Van Bronckhorst showed that age is not a limiting factor as he stormed up and down the line constantly.
We have another favourite added to a small group of teams fancying their chances and for Dutch football, I hope they do not falter at any hurdle as they have done so often in the past. Perhaps it is fitting that twenty years ago Marco Van Basten scored a stunning volley against the USSR and won Euro 88 as a player. Maybe now his time has come again.
Holland 3 – 0 Italy FT
EUROGOONER WATCH: 2 POTENTIAL GUNNERS?
France 0 – 0 Romania
The’Group of Death’ got off to a rather tame start at the Letzigrund, with French flair unable to find a way past a Romanian side who went home with the point in their back pockets they’d come for. France began and ended the game with Henry on the bench, he is surely carrying an injury, as Anelka, Ribery and Karim Benzema looked about as effective as a one-legged man trying to ride a bike. The introduction of Gomis (a player Arsenal have been stalking since he was in the womb) did little to change the face of a France side that looked like they’d rather be with Flamini on holidays.
77 minutes into the game, Arsenal’s maybe-man, Samir Nasri, entered. He looked comfortable and showed willing, but nothing could shift the malaise that seemed to be draped over the French. Encouragingly, he didn’t look out of his depth at this level and seemed to have a confidence about him that will be needed if he’s to make and impression in the Premiership.
Wesley Schneider – Dutch Wizard!
Unsung signing recommendations – 2
Name- Wesley Schneider
Where? – Plays for Real Madrid and had more than a decent season with them. Not considered a regular starter for Real Madrid. Newspapers have linked him to us in the past due to his closeness to Van Persie.
Position- He can play across the midfield. When playing wide, he likes to cut in and more of a passing winger rather than a crossing one. Thus would easily fit into the Arsenal mould.
Strengths- Thunderous shots, a quality that has been somewhat miss ed in the Arsenal side. Also, one more strength which would help him gel is his ability to play in the counterattack and his ability to move across the midfield in accordance to the playTracks back and provides solidity in the wings as well. Also a good free kick taker, something that we have missed in the recent past. A person who scores a lot of goals from the midfield, he could be a real asset to the squad.
Transfer possibility- With him not in favour at the Bernabeu, his transfer could not be much of a problem. With Real interested in Hleb and his exit becoming apparent, Schneider could be a sitably nicked as a part weight in the transfer. If bought for money, I guess, he should not cost more that 12 m pounds.