Blues for the ‘3 Lions’ and the Orange Lions

If you’re an England fan, it must have been a very nerve-wrecking and dramatic finish at the new Wembley Stadium. For the record, no team from the United Kingdom would be there at Austria/Switzerland next year and I must concede that any of their absence would hurt a lot as far as tournament revenue and viewership are concerned. Hell, there won’t be the annual hype about Wayne Rooney or about whether to send David Beckham there or to exclude him totally. It’s the end of the road as far as Euro 2008 is in concern and England would not cause headlines with their passionate support from the fans and the like. That would certainly mean a lot less hooligan problems to deal with. Swiss police and their Austrian counterparts would probably be breathing a sigh of relief at the very notion that the rascally English louts won’t be there but that does not mean that the equally rowdy Dutch, German and Italian fans would be within easy territory whilst the heat of the tournament gathers momentum.

First off, sorry that England won’t be there. I was certainly wishing that they would be – for the interest in the tournament itself and for the usual pizazz  surrounding the team whenever the finals draw near. Russia, while I won’t be betting that they would make it past their group stage,do have a shrewd tactician in Guus Hiddink and his magic would rub off somehow on the rather average Russian team.

I suppose that England had it all to lose – they only needed a draw – a point and they blew it. Playing at home certainly helped but maybe playing against the group leaders would not. Much has been said about Croatia already qualified and that they have nothing to lose, yadda etc. but the main thing is – hardly anyone betted for Croatia playing for their pride and for first place in the group. I was also half-entertaining the idea that the Croatians would not really put a token resistance at the large stadium and would be stroking the ball round contentedly while hoping to punt long balls upfront to Eduardo da Silva to score from a fortuitous position. English recalcitrance or buckling under home pressure is besides the point. Tactical-wise, Steve McClaren made some rather interesting changes to his line-up by dumping experienced Paul Robinson and relegated seasoned campaigner David Beckham while choosing the raw Scott Carson and the diminutive Shaun Wright-Phillips in their stead.

I think that, however patently obvious it may be to yours truly, that the most culpable soul who lost it all for England was the rookie Scott Carson. First, he spilt a hopeful Niko Kranjcar rocket – then Carson was stranded when Eduardo da Silva played teammate Ivica Olic onside with a teasing pass, of which the latter rounded the bemused goalkeeper to score. I though that Olic displayed excellent and steady finishing, even looking up at the linesman for fear of being called offside.

It may be possible that England’s fightback is something equivalent to rubbing salt into the wound – their strong penalty claims and the lapse in the Croatian defense signify that the tides have changed to England’s favour. Had little Andorra equalised against Russia at around the same moment – the atmosphere at the football cathedral would have been opulent and sparkling. Instead, Croatia soldiered on and it was Mladen Petric (a sub for Eduardo da Silva) who made Wembley groan in despair with his sublime long-ranged shot into Scott Carson’s left side of the net.

That England would not roll over, at least on home soil, is guaranteed – with so much at stake but their last surges into the Croat defense wasn’t telling enough – there were some half-chances cleared off the corner line and defensive volleys were the main agenda for the Croats towards the end of the match. Blaming Steven Gerrard for not marshaling the midfield and accusing Frank Lampard for not having enough bite in the same area would not be enough – Joe Cole also had a very inconsequential presence in midfield and it was left to Shaun Wright-Phillips to do most of the running. Peter Crouch was good, however and looked the more hardworking players on the pitch. Sol Campbell and Joleon Lescott at the centre of the English defence are also equally responsible for the tracts of space for the Croatians to attempt long-range efforts to test the spring chicken at goal.

But at the end of the day – the Croats are to be commended for their excellent attacking style of play and for their workrate. Admit it – most teams who have lost their initial precious lead on English soil may later succumb to relentless English pressure and fold in later stages of the match. Not Croatia and certainly not Slaven Bilic’s men. If anyone is writing them off at least 8 months ago, would recant after witnessing a display of exquisite attacking initiative and verve. They have nothing to really lose in this match, right?

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Holland v. Belarus

This is one is embarrassing, this.

The wintry milieu of the match is certainly a daunting prospect. Anyone having played football in winter climate can attest that the biting cold is never kind to the lungs and myself included.

The Dutch made some minor tweaks to their team – Edwin van der Sar was replaced by the young Maarten Stekelenburg; Andre Ooijer added more apparent steel to the defence and that’s about it. There’s no place for Clarence Seedorf this time though and the Dutch were clearly toothless while traversing forward.

In the misty surroundings of the Dinamo Stadium at Minsk, the Dutch attacked early on. Business as usual. Coming to a cropper (usually not being able to break down the sturdy opposition defence) would force the Dutch to pass the ball gamely around until Belarus found a chink in the Dutch brittle armour. And this very chink is none other than the dear Joris Mathijsen. If I’d raised my doubts as to his pedigree since last year’s World Cup 2006 in Germany, then these series of qualification matches would affirm my belief – with him around, nothing solid is to be found at the back. His marking of scorer Vitaly Bulyga is embarrassing to be even considered with the Dutch great centrebacks of the past. Although he was not directly responsible for Belarus’ second goal, his hesitance at clearing the ball allowed the nippy Vladimir Korythko to steal in and score a rather compelling goal.

I won’t ponder about Danny Koevermans in this match as his presence upfront at attack was negligible. Rafael van der Vaart (aside from his goal) and Wesley Sneijder had probably wished that the cold weather would go away but this is not the case here. Both midfielders looked lethargic and disinterested to attack. The usually average Demy de Zeeuw was also another experiment gone awry – he was flat-footed in the face of the lively Aliaksandr Hleb and Co.

Again – I try to draw parity with the England-Croatia game and the current Dutch one here. Both Croatia and Holland had booked their tickets to Euro 2008. Both of these nations are managed by former international players with rare experience and no championship-winning pedigree to go with it. But unlike the men in Orange, the Croatians are playing against a top team playing for qualification (though a draw would suffice) and the Croatians are up against much-tougher opposition. The climate is different of course, and you’d have to bear this in consideration. But the Croatians showed their fine pedigree and won while the gradually-average Dutch side rolled over at Minsk.

And – not for the first time this season for the Dutch – I’m not entirely for Marco van Basten’s strange selection policy. Here’s a rating of the players’ performance: –

1. Maarten Stekelenburg – 5/10

– Being tall for a goalkeeper is a wonderful constitution to possess. But when opposing forwards start toe-poking between the legs – the experience of the keeper in question became vital. This game is a good run-out for the young Ajax keeper before the finals though and I think that van Basten is already hoping to bring him to the Alps next summer. Whether he would start there is another question for another day. He was not efficient in the game and although he got a hand to the second Belorussian goal, it could have been avoided.

2. Mario Melchiot – 7/10

-The workrate of this Wigan player is superb. His forays into the Belorussian area and his occasional tricks with the ball is believable. He seemed to be enjoying a mini revival to his international career and I’ve no doubt that come summer 2008, his experience is crucial for the Oranje. Defensive-wise, he was seldom caught out in the open and hardly needed his centreback teammates to mop up any poo of his, if he did.

4. Joris Mathijsen – 4/10

-The puzzle of the team. Like I’ve said above – van Basten’s patience with him borders on the curiosity the likes of solving the Bermuda Triangle phenomenon or the mysterious disappearance of Amelia Earhart. Look at the replays of the Belorussian goals and you’d see that his marking of the goalscorers are inferior stock. For the first goal, he tried to shadow Bulyga but was too slow to keep up with the player. In the second goal, Wilfred Bouma tried to clear a ball in the haert of the penalty box but screwed it; Mathijsen fumbled for the right course of action and Korythko took full advantage and said ‘dank u wel’. He also lacked pace in his run back to his post to defend and rarely offered much help in the midfield area.

*Van Basten – dispose of this Hamburger SV trash or the Netherlands would be facing a very difficult trip in the Alps. Think of the Oranje fans everywhere!

3. Andre Ooijer – 6/10

As usual – a tidy effort from the Blackburn Rovers’ man. Nothing spectacular but his very presence in the Dutch defence cleaned up much more mess than you can imagine.

5. Wilfred Bouma – 5/10

Not good. Not good at all. If he’s making the leftback spot his own, then I’d think that Gio van Bronckhorst is slightly better than him. He was often caught out of position; had some crosses into delicious areas of the pitch but lacked the consistency. I think that this Aston Villa man has the skill, but his concentration is rather shocking.

10. Wesley Sneijder – 4/10

Bad performance this time out. He had looked at home under Dick Advocaat’s tutelage but seemed very confused under Marco van Basten. I don’t think that he understood his role very well and had not been so since the World Cup last year. It may be a lack of form but this sort of performance should warrant the gaffer putting in other players e.g. Nigel de Jong or the somewhat promising Orlando Engelaar in place. His removal from the squad at halftime and replaced by the boring Dirk Kuijt was justified.

7. Rafael van der Vaart – 6/10

Was the only midfielder driving forward and to be honest- his efforts were also sub-par at times. Still, where his younger teammate had stumbled, his potent workrate is the best that Holland could have drawn upon in the absence of otherwise important commitments by the forwards who did not function well.

8. Giovanni van Bronckhorst – 5/10

Not good, not very bad. Was the captain and was subbed at 66th minutes by Orlando Engelaar who made a rather good impression.

6. Demy de Zeeuw – 5/10

It’s not that his play is awful. It’s just that he wasn’t very good. This AZ Alkmaar man has commanded the anchor at midfield for quite a number of matches running now and looked to dispel most opposition for his spot for now. His replacement at 69th minute, Nigel de Jong looked fresher and more sprightly and would have been my choice for the role at the beginning of the match. Notice how his comparatively small frame is not match for taller opponents. I like van Basten’s policy of picking players with controlled, limited egos and more on harmony but these aspects are not on par with a moody personality but a skillful master of his trade.

11. Ryan Babel – 6/10

Young Ryan Babel made most of the running down the left flank for the best part of the match. His role is also a curious one, best answered only be van Basten himself but he fulfilled the role to satisfaction despite the uncertainty of tactical course. His crashing shot against the crossbar in the closing stages of the game is a good indication of what this player can actually do. I certainly believe that his presence in the team is almost as crucial as Arjen Robben and van Persie are.

9. Danny Koevermans – 5/10

Not had a good game; not even a satisfactory one. The only redeeming thing he has done was his readiness to nip around the penalty area even when there were no scraps to nibble on. A very subdued presence in attack and cannot be compared with Ryan Babel’s.

—-Substitutes—-

13. Nigel de Jong – 6/10.

Had a better game than Demy but did little to control the game from his favoured defensive midfield position.

15. Orlando Engelaar. – 6/10.

If the Oranje had some budding talent, I’m relishing the prospect of seeing this tall young player in action soon. His technique and his reading of the game is ok and probably van Basten’s only smart pick of the Eredivisie so far.

17. Dirk Kuijt – 6/10

At least he tried. He wasn’t good, never spectacular but at least he did try. Had a little stepover near the Belarus goal but usually, his end product is difficult to make full use of. If he is a winger under van Basten’s tactics, then ‘total football’ is strangely doctored and mangled out of shape from the concept conceived by the late Dutch master tactician Rinus Michels. He should be most effective in the Dennis Bergkamp role but van Basten had no patience for it.

If this should be a sign of things to come for the Oranje – I’d say that most of this team is utter dreck. If they’d watch the splendid Croatia team take on England by the horns and refused to let up at Wembley, the Oranje should do well to be fearful of being an embarrassment at the major tournament. Don’t be surprised.

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