Monday, 14 June 2010

Holland v Denmark

Holland 2 - 0 Denmark
Agger (og) 46
Kuyt 85

Our site manager Paul will have been waiting for this one, as he's got both teams in the sweepstake. See, it isn't just me that's getting overexcited. He was happy enough with his draw, and they both look better options to progress than Japan or Cameroon.

Not that it was a classic. In fact, despite the huge number of ways the World Cup enhances our lives, it really hasn't given us much in the way of memorable football so far.

Now in a funny kind of a way, that isn't a disaster. We've still got wall to wall action, and even if it isn't always red hot at least Grace Dent's vuvuzela is. On top of Grace, as it were, you get famous faces, towering stadiums, commentating malapropisms and all the other little extras you dream of on a cold January morning. It's just that it hasn't exactly delivered the spectacle I was hoping for. As one eagerly anticipated game after another falls a little flat, you do start to wonder where the wow factor is coming from.

This one seemed to have everything. We've seen half these players in the Premiership, and they usually deliver well enough. Sorensen in the Danish goal plays for Stoke, for instance. Not that that's a traditional indicator of footballing beauty, but he's a good keeper, and being the keeper it's not like he's going to be wandering round the pitch randomly kicking people like the Stoke outfield. Denmark also had Agger from Liverpool, a solid defender with a decent shot on him, and Bendtner from Arsenal, who came back from injury midseason and finished strongly. The Dutch had Kuyt (Liverpool), Heitinga (Everton) and van Persie (Arsenal). From the European Leagues we also had Rommedahl, Danish but used to turning it on for Ajax, and van Bommel from Bayern Munich. There was every reason for optimism.

And Holland have entertained us often enough. Do you remember them at Euro 2000? Their demolition job on Yugoslavia still stands as poetry's greatest triumph since Dante. Not today though. Robben was injured, and I'm sure that didn't help. Without Robben they're less Dante, more Richard Stilgoe.

The game started with an exchange of long range free kicks, but Sneijder's flew over while Enevoldsen's went wide. The commentator wondered whether all this stuff about the ball's unpredictable flight was encouraging players to shoot from unrealistic distances. This is particularly unwise when you realise that actually the ball's misbehaviour mainly involves going higher than you'd think, so long range shots are almost bound to sail over.

The commentator also noticed the overwhelming support for the Dutch in the stadium, and suggested that might be because of South Africa's historical connection with Holland. If you ask me that's about as likely as Scottish or Irish crowds cheering on England, while the Welsh offer them free holiday cottages, but maybe there were just a lot of Afrikaners in. It could be, after all they're the ones who can afford tickets.

There were a few more long range shots, but the first decent chance fell to Bendtner on 27 minutes. Agger's cross was perfect for him, but his header fell just wide. The Dutch had no chances as good, but they kept up the pressure, forcing the Danes to defend solidly. Van Persie had a shooting opportunity just before the break, but missed. Each side's best chance had fallen to an Arsenal player, and they'd both cocked it up. Arsenal fans looking to moan about how much better their players were on international duty must have been sorely disappointed.

Calamity struck the Danes just after the break. Simon Poulsen misdirected a clearing header from a van Persie cross, and it bounced off Agger and into the net.

The commentators were rather unkind, I thought. First they accused Poulsen of looking happy about it when he smiled with embarrassment, then they started going on about what a terrible error it was. In fact, although it wasn't in any way a great defensive header, it was quite clearly not going in until it bounced off Agger. It wasn't his fault either, he had no time to get out of the way, it was just one of those things. A few minutes later van der Vaart flicked a cross towards the top right corner of the goal and Sorensen dived well to claim it, and they accused van der Vaart of mistiming a pass and Sorensen of grandstanding for the cameras.

No-one was slandering Eljero Elia when he came on, he was just too good to be traduced. I'd not seen him before, but watch out for him for the rest of the tournament. He's one of those players who runs at a defense and turns them. Like the elephants in Hannibal's army, their biggest impact is on the other side's morale.

The Danes, meanwhile, rather bafflingly took Bendtner off and replaced him with Beckmann. Why they swapped their best striker for a midfielder when they were a goal down, only they know. Unsurprisingly, they made little impact for the rest of the game. With five minutes to go, Elia got onto a Sneijder pass, shot and hit the post. Kuyt tucked in the rebound. It was hard on Sorensen, who'd got a glove to Elia's shot to stop it going in, but only fair on the balance of play.

Denmark had one chance, when a Dutch defensive error let the ball through to Rommedahl just on full time, but his shot was well wide, and that was their lot.

So the Dutch win their first game, perhaps a touch prosaically. And can you blame them? It's all very well being the football world's Dante, but when did he last get on Countdown? Richard Stilgoe's an OBE, you know. How many OBEs has Dante got? It's a results business, and if you want gongs, sometimes you have to be more like Stilgoe.

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