In one moment Marco Van Basten became my favourite football manager on the planet. It’s too early to say that the Dutch will be champions or that Van Basten will have a glittering career as a manager, but nobody will be able to take away his moment of genius, bravado and pure inspiration.
The Dutch made no changes and there was no reason to make any. The French got Henry to start and Govou came in support with Benzema and Anelka moving to the bench. Evra came in for Abidal but there did not seem too much change in the setup. Except that Ribery played more central with Govou combining the right wing to his central attack duties.
The Dutch started where they left off. All players got involved, they passed the ball around the ground with ease and in lovely shapes (Kuyt to Sneijder to de Jong to Ruud to Engelaar to Van der Vaart...see what I mean) and were all over the French when they scored the opener. Kuyt showed a striker’s instinct, a trait that he has often lacked the last few months and just ignored Malouda’s feeble resistance to head home from a corner and the Dutch were ahead after 10 minutes.
But it wasn’t going to be a walkover like the other day against Italy. Not yet at least. Around half-way through the first forty-five, the French found their feet as well. They began passing the ball better, not losing it as easily and settled into a rhythm. The result – two teams both playing well, keeping possession and equally effective in defence.
Look at this. The back four with two sitting in front and linking play – de Jong and Engelaar for Holland and Makelele and Toulalan for France. Two attacking midfielders covering the wings and central areas: Van der Vaart and Sneider and Malouda and Govou. Ruud and Henry both playing like lone strikers. The only difference being Ribery on a more central role compared to Kuyt who was distinctly right midfield.
While Van Bronkhorst’s runs up-field left some space for France to push up the right, the overall layout for both teams ensured that the game was competitive, attractive but absolutely in balance. No chance of the striker’s getting behind the defence and no real way to make penetrating runs in the box. A bit of a stalemate with advantage to the Dutch as the game reached half time.
It was then that it happened. With the second half about to start and the onus on Domenech to change things around and force the issue, we were greeted with the sight of the very impressive Engelaar being replaced by Arjen Robben. Van Basten chose to sacrifice the formation that was doing more than enough to keep France in control by removing a wall in central midfield and introducing a floating missile. He didn’t need to. He could have sat back and relaxed and played the game of “Maybe we’ll score a second, maybe they’ll equalize, maybe we’ll win 1 nil, let’s wait and watch”. That’s what Raymond was doing.
The smile on my face did not go away for hours after that. When was the last time a manager did that? In such a big game too? Will he pull it off? Or will France make them pay?
Those answers came later on but it was evident from the beginning of the second half that the game had changed. With Engelaar gone, France found more space to press forward. They looked a little more threatening and soon enough Malouda chipped the ball over the defence to get Henry one-on one against Van der Saar. Henry chipped it over the net and France had blown their best chance of getting back into the game.
Then came the Dutch magic. Ruud pressed by three defenders danced and passed the ball to Robben who zipped down the field and laid the ball for Van Persie who had come in to replace Kuyt just a while ago. Just brilliant.
When France got it back to 2-1, it was still more to do with what Van Basten had allowed them to do rather than their own brilliance. With Von Bronkhorst caught away from his position, there was no one to provide extra cover and the rather limited pace off the Dutch backline was exposed with Sagnol’s only great pass of the game and Henry’s one touch reminding us of the player he was and still may be.
Within 60 seconds Arjen Robben showed his brilliance again. A goal which had a great pass, great speed and an unbelievable finish with no space to shoot. Please God! Let Arjen Robben not be injured forever and please let us have the joy of seeing him play for many many years.
Domenech deprived of ideas and inspiration made changes for the sake of changes but did not really change much. Henry showed the will to fight back but did not seem to have the ability or support. Evra played worse than I have ever seen him do and with the midfiled not getting more adventurous than Makelele and Toulalan, a French comeback looked unlikely.
What didn’t look unlikely was a fourth Dutch goal, with Robben testing Coupet and Ruud nodding one almost into the post. It was also what was needed to set up a perfect group finish by getting the French and Italians equal on goal difference as well as goal scored though I am not sure how much impact that has as per the tournament rules.
The fourth came and it came through Sneijder who has to be very very close to being the player of the tournament so far.
The great French side is no more. Sagnol does not look good enough, there are too many old players, the manager does not know who to start with now that none of the strikers have inspired confidence, Italy are almost a replica of their own team and will fight hard and if that was not all, the Romanians have to play against a Dutch team that has already qualified. I don’t think France will make it.