Anyone who had seen the Dutch annihilate Italy and then France and happens to be a neutral, would have wanted the Oranje to go on and win the title.
I had with some audacity predicted that Russia will be the new Champions even before the tournament started, and hence had some reason to cheer for Russia. Then again, if the Ducth have been brilliant, the Russians have been equally entertaining and attacking and it has not been hard to like them. But in spite of all that, if one were forced to pick a favourite, it had to be Holland. Actually you wouldn’t have to use too much force at all. I was cheering for the Netherlands and predictions be damned, I wanted them to win.
I did not watch Van Basten score that goal in 88 that gave the Ducth their first and only major title, but I have watched them fall y the wayside a number of times. Italia 90, France 98, Portugal 04....And there was apprehension that for all the magic that they had displayed so far, they would still need to start from scratch starting from the Russia game and past performances would count for nothing. I said a silent prayer that the Dutch would not have an off day.
The game was exciting but played at a much slower pace than I had expected. I had hoped that Robben would start and was looking forward to a game where Sneijder and van der Vaart would keep splitting the Russian defence with some electric passing and Robben and Nistelroy would have more attempts on goal than you could care to count. I was almost certain that Netherlands would expose the Russian defence in the same way that Spanish had if not more. However, I also expected the Russians to be equally lively in attack with Arshavin and Pavluchenko wrecking havoc aroud Ooijer and co. I expected them to continue to pass the ball around and move forward in a horizontal line almost like an infantry front-line. The result for me would be decided by the capability to convert chances and here I backed the Dutch.
How different it all was. From the beginning it was all about the Russians. Arshavin clearly is amongst the best players in the roaming advanced midfield position and the Dutch defence had trouble coping with him Pavluchenko was getting into wicked positions as usual and when he missed a free header to put the Russian’s ahead, I tut-tutted thinking that he wouldn’t get many more of those. Kolodin showed that he has a very lethal kick and over a season of club football, he looks like someone who will score a few scorchers. The Russians dominated the first half hour, kept position, passed well but did not score.
Part of the reason for some missing bite on their part was the fact that the Russian mid-field did not advance in as many numbers for every move like they did against Sweden. Zyrianov, Semak, Semshov and Seonko never came to the edge of the box all at once and that meant that a lot more crosses and long rangers were attempted instead of passing the ball right up to the goal such as they did so many times against Sweden.
Not that the policy didn’t pay dividends. For the first half an hour Sneijder and van der Vaart were completely starved of the ball and the Dutch seemed completely out of the game. De Jong and Engelaar were forced to play it back or make speculative lobs when they got the ball and when they tried to play through the flanks, the only option they had was to play the ball to Boulharouz who would then pass it to Kuyt who was marooned somewhere near the right touchline and from there the Dutch would lose possession. Thus having cut off the creative forces in mid-field, the Russians ensured that the Dutch were not able to play their game.
Towards the end of the first half, Holland seemed to have made a few adjustments and there were signs of them coming into the game. Kuyt moved central meaning that Boulharouz would have to play the ball into danger rather than make safe passes to Kuyt. Also Sneijder started coming a lot deeper to collect the ball from the defence and force the issue.
The game was never dull with an interesting chance falling to either side every few minutes. The Russians of course had more chances though the chance of the first half probably fell to Sneijder who would have scored with only the goal keeper to beat on many other days.
The question for the second half was what changes van Basten would make and I was again expecting to see Engelaar swapped with Robben and Kuyt with van Persie. At half time only the latter happened and then Boulharouz was replaced by Heitinga ten minutes into extra time and I thought - “Surely the next on will be Robben”.
But Russia had scored before that. Heitinga caught out by Semak who put a lovely cross in for Pavluchenko to finish making the Dutch central defence look very ineffective indeed. The Russians seemed completely unaffected by van Basten’s changes and kept getting bolder and better as time went on. Arshavin especially made reaching the by-line a habit and the Russians looked well on their way to a deserved victory. The third Dutch change saw Afellay and not Robben come on and I’m sure, many people the world over would have wondered if this made sense.
Till they conceded from a free-kick. They had looked susceptible against Sneijder’s free kicks before in the game, almost allowing de Jong to score on a couple of occasions, but when they let Ruud (who had been brilliantly marked by Kolodin till then) have the chance, there was only to be one result. A late equalizer and the momentum and one would feel destiny seemed to be with Holland.
Russia should have won it comfortably in the first half of extra time. Pavluchenko made space from no where to shoot from the edge of the box and hit the bar and then Torbinski, on as a substitute pushed a simple chance in front of goal tamely into the hands of vad der Saar. But in the second half they were not to be denied. Arshavin first set up one for Torbinski (who made a delayed run into the box at break-neck speed...definitely full marks to Hiddink for having a fresh man there) and then moments later latched on to a long throw and shrugged of the Dutch defence and scored. 3-1 to the Russians and today there would be no fight-back.
The Russians are deservedly in the semi-final waiting for Spain or Italy. They have it in them to beat either of them even though Spain thrashed them last time round. As before, I think this team is not to be taken lightly as it is not just a bunch of decent players playing well as a team, but more like a bunch of very skilful players also gelling superbly as a team. Their weaknesses – speed in defence and ability to handle set pieces.
The Dutch – promised so much but gone again. They did give us some great moments, wizardly goals and lots of color. Van Basten who inspired such confidence, failed to do so with his substitutions yesterday. Maybe he knew what he was doing but the players couldn’t pull it off, but he left Robben, Huntelaar etc. on the bench and some questions will be asked. I still think he is a brilliant manager who is not afraid to be positive and wish he had been more so from the beginning yesterday. Anyway, goodbye to Holland and will wait for the next chance to cheer them on.