Sunday, June 22, 2008

Not Enough Dutch Courage

For the second major tournament in a row, the team that came out of the starting blocks the quickest have fallen at the quarter-final stage. It is a measure of the quality of last night's Russian performance that the Netherlands were dependent on an exceptional performance from their goalkeeper Edwin Van Der Saar to even get to extra time in the first place, but ultimately the advantage of not having come into the competition at the end of a long, hard season seemed to tell for Russia. For the Dutch, the mood was sombre. The black armbands were a signifier of the sad personal events surrounding Khalid Bhoularouz, and they started in a sluggish manner, which was in sharp contrast to their performances in the group stage.

From the very start, the Russians were too quick and too slick for the Dutch. Andrei Arshavin's introduction into this Euro 2008 team has been the final piece in a jigsaw constructed by Guus Hiddinck, and this particular missing piece has transformed his team into a fluid, attacking unit and, as their confidence has grown since their opening defeat by Spain, they have started to flourish, firstly with an outstanding performance against Sweden and again last night against a Dutch team that had deservedly jumped to become the tournament favourites off the back three marvellous performances against France, Italy and Romania. Pavlyuchenko headed over when he possibly should have done better, Van Der Saar had to dive acrobatically to his left to tip away a shot from Arshavin and Denis Kolodin had two shots from distance, the first of which forced another save from Van Der Saar whilst the second of which dropped just over the crossbar. In retailiation, the Ruud Van Nistelrooy missed a low cross that he probably should have made for the Netherlands, but the surprise when half-time came was that Russia hadn't managed to take the lead.

The breakthrough came eleven minutes into the second half, when Russia deservedly took the lead. Arshavin played Sergei Semak, and his low cross was touched over the line at the far post by Pavlyuchenko. After the goal, it looked more likely that Russia would double their lead than that the Netherlands would find a way back into the game. Anyukov's shot had to be pushed away by Van Der Saar, whilst a low cross from Arshavin could have been touched in by Saenko. As time wore on, the Dutch did begin to have more and more possession, but they were unable to convert possession into clear goalscoring chances until, with five minutes to play, Wesley Sneijder's free-kick was headed in by Ruud Van Nistelrooy to take the match into extra time, although there was still time for a little controversy in the dying seconds, when Kolodin initially picked up a second yellow card for a foul on Wesley Sniejder, but was reprieved after the referee spoke to one of his assistants.

One might have thought that the psychological boost of the late goal might have buoyed Dutch spirits going into extra time, but Russia continued to control the majority of play as the match went into it's additional thirty minutes. Pavlyuchenko hit the cross bar and Arshavin had another shot well saved by Ven Der Saar, but the Dutch defence couldn't hold out like this indefinitely, and Arshavin crossed again for Dmitri Torbinski to fire past Van Der Saar to give Russia the lead again with three minutes to play in the first half of extra time. A minute into the second half, the result was put beyond any doubt as Arshavin scored a third Russian goal. The Dutch game was up. They had been outplayed by a better, faster, fitter and more fluid team. Having shown up both of the last World Cup's finallists in the group stages, they were undone by a Russian team that rode its luck to get to the finals in the first place. Roberto Donadoni and Luis Aragones will have been watching with interest and, I would rather suspect, not a little trepidation.


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