Monday, 28 June 2010

Holland v Slovakia

Holland 2 Robben 18, Sjneider 84
Slovakia 1 Vittek (pen) 90 + 4

The B list countries are all going home now. They shine, they sparkle, they put out Italy or France, in England's case they don't do any of those things, but as we head towards the quarter finals the big fish are taking over.

It's like a feeding frenzy, taken to its logical conclusion. During qualifying there are plenty of fish in the sea, and everyone contents themselves with the small fry. By the tournament itself the Balkan bait ball is mostly gone, and the smaller hunters become the hunted. Once they get out of the group stage it's bye bye to halibut, herring, and English carp, and before we know it the real sharks are on their own, thrashing around and gorging on each other until one monstrous hammerhead emerges triumphant from the debris of scale and crunched bones.

You get the idea. Not that Holland will be describing themselves as one of the really big fish. After all, it's not like they've ever won it, or anything.

The golden generation (a phrase so cheapened by its application to the current England squad that it's hard to use it without spitting) took them to two finals, in 1974 and 1978, but they lost to Germany, then Argentina. Since then we've had the traditional flashes of greatness (one thinks immediately of the Bergkamp goal against Argentina in 1998), but they always seem to burn brightly, then burn out.

This year, they're taking a different tack. No more 6-1 demolition jobs, like the one they inflicted on Yugoslavia in Euro 2000. They were hosting the tournament, and they preened and strutted to a semifinal defeat by Italy that seemed impossible.

This time the preening and the strutting have been left to lesser teams. They've beaten Denmark, Japan, Cameroon and now Slovakia, scored seven goals to two conceded, yet they seem to have ghosted through the tournament.

We're seeing a new, efficient Holland, without the flamboyancy, haircuts or public spats of yesteryear. I like what I'm seeing. Mind you, they've got Brazil next.

The big news for them is that Arjen Robben is back. He played in the Champions League final for Bayern, but hurt himself in a friendly against Hungary a week before the tournament began. They've done fine without him, but they were glad of his goal today. The way he cut inside from the right and put the ball precisely through the minute gap between converging defenders' legs will have brought back happy memories from the days before gold was devalued. Three Lions? Sealions more like. Yes I'm still angry. It's still only the day after the Grim Day, you know. Not Better Yet Day, we call it, and cursed be those who fail to understand.

Yes, let's get back to Holland. The Slovakian goalkeeper Mucha gave them the second, running out to get a ball he was never going to reach. Kuyt headed over him and passed it back to Sjneider, who shot into an empty net. It was a shame for Mucha, who'd had a good game and a good tournament, but that's feeding frenzies for you, no respecters of effort.

The laws of sporting selection relented long enough to allow Slovakia a nice little bonus at the end, as they won a penalty with the last move of the match. Vittek scored, to move to four goals for the tournament. The final whistle blew while they were celebrating. It was how they'd have wanted to go.

The four days since the Italy game were a nice little interlude for them, before normal service was resumed. They didn't entertain against Paraguay or New Zealand, but they've made up for it since. Holland have Brazil, and the winner just has to beat Uruguay or Ghana to get to the final, so it would be a reckless punter who put their money anywhere else, if you ask me.

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