THE FLYING DUTCHMEN RUNS AGROUND
Holland slumped to an unlikely defeat in the midst of a Czech revival after taking a 2-0 lead in a romping first 20 minutes in their second group game of Euro 2004. For the umpteenth time in the history of Dutch football, they started off brightly and shimmered brightly with promise only to fall at the last hurdle again.
This was without question, the most exciting game of the tournament so far. There were plenty of goals and plenty of scintillating and positive attacking football from both sides. The Czechs once again demonstrated their resolve and their title credentials by coming from behind to win and became the first team to book a confirmed berth into the last eight. On the other hand, Holland had once again demonstrated its frailty and its traditional tendency to self-destruct in the same process.
Questions should be asked about the Czech defence as it conceded two early goals to the Dutch. The second was perhaps forgivable since Van Nistelrooy was clearly offside when the ball was first played to Arjen Robben. The first goal must, however, be attributed to lax organization, poor marking and ball-watching by the Czech defenders as the beefy Wilfred Bouma suddenly found himself at the end of a free header in the six yard box which he duly converted.
By the second Dutch goal, it seemed that the contest was all but over, but there was still plenty of time and the Czechs had previously proven that they have the resolve to overturn the tables. Just ask the Latvians.
The first Czech goal came before the end of the second half as the giant Jan Koller latched on a low cross to score after a rather silly error from the Dutch captain, Philip Cocu in giving the ball away inside his own half. The first half belonged mainly to the Dutch as both Van der Meyde and the sensational Arjen Robben tore down on both flanks giving the Czechs a torrid time. Arjen Robben was easily the best Dutch player on the pitch and had replaced Rafael Van der Vaart, the other more well-known and recognized golden boy of Dutch football. The Czech defence never quite found an answer to his surging runs down the flanks and at the end of these runs, the Dutch starlet had produced a steady supply of dangerous crosses which could easily have turned the game decisively in favour of the Dutch for the intervention of Petr Cech, the Czech Republic keeper> It was Cech who stood bravely in the face of the Orange onslaught and whose point blank saves must be credited for keeping the Czechs in the game during that turbulent first half.
The Czechs on their part looked more comfortable in attack than defence and in Milan Baros, Tomas Rosicky and of course, Pavel Nedved, it cannot be too far off the mark to say that the Czechs possess the best attack in the tournament. One may be tempted to say that the three have had a rather unimpressionable season at their respective clubs but when they played together for the national team, they seemed determined to shrug off the disappointment of their club season for greater European glory. If one has to be cynical and look for a weakness in the Czech attack, it would probably come in the form of a rather listless Karel Poborsky who seems to be afflicted by serious myopia in every cross, free kick and corner he took as all of these precious chances fell way short of their intended targets. Even he had combined well with the rest of the Czech team, made his fair share of contribution in open play and did not look too out of place. All in all, the Czechs had their fair share of chances and never looked overwhlemed or over extended by the Dutch.
By half-time, it became clear that the next 45 minutes would be the most volatile and unpredictable of this Euro season. The Dutch were playing at or near their best and the Czechs were responding steadfastly to the challenge. A neutral would have said that a draw would be a fair result, but Holland needed more.
The second half came and there was a stalemate for much of the second half as both teams exchanged blows. Suddenly the tables were turned decisively when Dick Advocaat, the Dutch manger, surprisingly took off the mercurial Arjen Robben even though the youngster was clearly doing well. Perhaps he was trying to consolidate the lead, but one will counter that if Robben had stayed on, the Dutch may have collected a third goal which would have effectively finished off the game for the Czechs. The stage was set for another Dutch capitulation.
The game was to go on and see a Czech equaliser from a thunderous shot by the well-built Milan Baros to the top left hand corner of Dutch goal beyond the consdierable reach of the Dutch keeper, Edwin van der Sar.
The fiery Dutch right back, Heitinga, then found himself on the receiving end of a second yellow card which meant expulsion from the field after a rather innocuous challenge on Nedved. The ten-men Dutch team stood firm for a while, wavered and finally collapsed to a third Czech goal from the Czech substitute, Vladimir Smicer, when the unfortunate Dutch keeper was unable to effectively deal with a long shot from Baros.
The Dutch challenge faded after that even though they had some chances, but the despair on Van der Vaart's face as he flicked the ball inches wide of the Czech goal in dying minutes of the game said it all.
If there is any team that was going to throw away a two-goal lead in Euro 2004, it had to be the Dutch, even though the manner in which it was not as dramatic and sensational as the earlier English loss to the French. Holland must now beat Latvia in its last game and hope for further progress.
If Arjen Robben had stayed on, who knows what would have happened? To end on a cynical note, one is tempted to say that Robben is more likely to be around in the Dutch national team longer than Dick Advocaat, that's for sure.
As always is the case with the Dutch, they were, again, their own worst enemy.