Monday, June 14, 2010

Netherlands v. Denmark, Soccer City Stadium, Johannesburg

Result: Netherlands 2  Denmark 0  Take Away: Tactical changes in the second half paid off handsomely for the Dutch.  With five starters and a coach named "van ...", they should be nicknamed the Moving Company.

83,465 fans, seemingly all clad in orange (as were the empty seats), filled the Soccer Stadium in Joburg for the first all-European affair of this World Cup.  Most got what they wanted.  

Harkening back to years gone by, The Dutch came out classically numbered, wearing shirts 1 through 10 from the keeper up to the forwards.  Only number 11 was missing as star striker Arjen Robben was still nursing a hamstring injury.  Robben's ability to run at defenders with pace rivals anyone in the world and his absence from the Dutch's Big Four upfront was a concern.

The most recognizable member of the Danish squad was skipper Morten Olsen.  In his tenth year, Olsen is the longest-tenured manager at this WC and brings stability to a young group that lacks a marquee name.

The Netherlands is a country that prides itself on the success of its team.  But like the Brazilians, the style with which they achieve that success is equally important.  Led by Johan Cruyff* and Johan Neeskens in the early '70s, Holland leapt onto the world stage with their revolutionary and hugely entertaining style of Total Football.  The Clockwork Orange were the most dynamic team at the '74 & '78 World Cups, but they came up short to the host nation in the Final on each occasion, losing 2-1 to West Germany in Munich** and 3-1 to Argentina in Buenos Aires.  It is a very difficult legacy to live up to and has burdened past Dutch sides.  The 2010 version is talented, but will also carry the weight of high expectations.

*It is famously told that Cruyff once said he could do anything with a soccer ball.  A writer challenged him that he couldn't put the ball in the net from behind the goal.  Cruyff walked about ten yards behind the goal, put the ball down, then chipped it up and over the crossbar with a lot of backspin.  The writer retrieved the ball out of the net.

**In this match Cruyff was pulled down in the German penalty area in the first minute.  Neeskens converted the ensuing penalty and the Dutch were up 1-0 before the any German player had touched the ball.

Both sides cruised through their qualifying.  The Dutch went 8-0-0 and outscored opponents 17-2 while the Danes lost only once and knocked out neighbor Sweden with 1-0 wins both home and away.

The early going saw patience from each side with Holland controlling the tempo and the flow, but the Mexican Wave was the dominating feature.  Against the run of play it was the Danes who got the better chances.  The first time the cameras really panned into the shadows in front of the Dutch goal was the 26th minute when Arsenal striker Niklas Bendtner, Denmark's lone front-runner, failed to direct his header on to the target from six yards.  He should have done better.  Ten minutes later Thomas Kahlenberg's shot had to be tipped out for a Danish corner, but it too yielded nothing.

The neighbors went to the half with a palindrome: NED 0-0 DEN (hat tip, ESPN Gamecast).  Both sides were well-organized defensively and Denmark's five-man midfield did a good job of foiling the Orange attackers, but better lucky than good as Fortune smiled on the Dutch to open the second forty-five.  

One minute in, Dane Simon Poulsen tried to clear a Dutch cross from six yards out but his poorly-struck header caromed off teammate Daniel Agger's back and ended up behind keeper Thomas Sorensen.  The 29th own goal in World Cup history put The Netherlands up 1-0.  Though down Denmark continued to work hard, but the game really opened up when subs Eljero Elia and Ibrahim Afellay came on for the Netherlands.  Elia was able to spread the Danish defense by attacking down the left flank and his work led directly to the second goal.  Wesley Sneijder played a lovely penetrating through ball down the left side which Elia ran onto and fired off the far post.  Dirk Kuyt, sprinting like a man who smelled glory, out-hustled Dane Simon Kjaer to the carom and completed the easy finish.  2-0 was the final result.

Netherlands coach Bert van Marwijk's side has to be pleased with the result and particularly with their play in the final thirty minutes.  The insertion of Elia, my man of the match despite only playing 25 minutes, was key and I would expect him to be included when they take on Japan Saturday.  Former Dutch star-turned-television-commentator Ruud Gullit was particularly insightful about the Dutch needs when speaking at the half, highlighting Rafael van der Vaart's poor tactical play on the left side as a serious issue.  Van Marwijk saw it as well and the Dutch were much better the last half hour.

Denmark now has to look to it's match with Cameroon on Saturday.  Both sides were defeated today and anything less than a tie Saturday will guarantee a three match tournament and quick flight home for the loser.

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