It’s been almost eight years since disillusioned Ukrainians took to Kharkiv’s Freedom Square clad in orange to demand political change. Initial hope following the people’s revolution faded as the country returned to the old establishment, and on a muggy July night in the eastern city, supporters of another Oranje movement also saw their lofty expectations brought crashing down to earth.
That it was old rivals Germany who left Netherlands’ hopes of Euro 2012 progress hanging by a thread was a particularly galling development for the many thousands of Dutch fans, who have been adopted by the Kharkiv locals and who triumphantly marched through the city’s streets to the Metalist Stadium in a spectacular sea of Oranje before the game. Like the players they idolise, there are plenty of big personalities among the colourful Netherlands contingent, but while those supporters put on an intimidating display of unity, the Dutch stars were unable to do the same on the pitch.
Two goals from the irrepressible Mario Gomez handed Netherlands their first defeat to Germany in a major tournament since the latter’s reunification, evoking memories of the Oranje’s painful loss in the 1974 World Cup final and elimination from Italia ’90. Whether this latest German-inflicted setback has ended their hopes at another finals depends on Bert van Marwijk’s ability to pick his side up and perhaps to admit a change is in order.
One of the pre-tournament favourites, Netherlands have suffered from a puzzling lack of cutting edge in Ukraine considering that, in Robin van Persie and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Van Marwijk has two strikers at his disposal who plundered 85 goals between them in 2011-12. Van Persie is consistently inspirational for Arsenal, but has been guilty of being internationally insipid. Although he scored a sublime goal to keep the Dutch dreaming, with his influential second-half showing receiving post-match acclaim from Germany coach Joachim Low, Van Persie’s failure to find the net in the initial exchanges cost his side the opportunity to take the initiative in this match, as he shot straight at Manuel Neuer and dragged an effort wide.
While Netherlands’ No. 16 was profligate, Germany’s No. 23 again rewarded his coach’s continuing faith in him. Gomez showed a ruthlessness in front of goal that has been common for him at club level, but that he had previously struggled to translate to the national team; it has been a watershed tournament for the man whose confidence looked shot after a goalless Euro 2008 and he now leads the Euro 2012 scoring chart with three goals in two games.
“He was a little bit out of his rhythm, after missing that chance [from close range against Austria] at Euro 2008 he lost his confidence. [But] In the right moment the manager stands behind his players,” Low said after the game. “You don’t have to boost him too much, he finds his own way. He’s got this real class, the way he scores his goals. He is very, very important for the team.”
Gomez himself added: “I'm very very happy, mainly because we won this game and there was a lot of pressure on me. With everything that has happened I am very proud to be here... I am happy that I justified the confidence in me and we won this game.”
Low will now no longer have to answer more questions on whether to pick Gomez or Miroslav Klose, but Van Marwijk is facing pressure to make some significant tactical changes. Under stern questioning from the Dutch press after the game, he urged them to “please be more positive” but optimism was not forthcoming when he went on to insist that he will persevere with his favoured 4-3-3 formation despite it resulting in two successive losses in Ukraine.
The introduction of Huntelaar and Tottenham playmaker Rafael van der Vaart at half-time reinvigorated the Dutch, and the school of thought suggesting the former must start is gathering pace, despite the coach's apparent unwillingness to listen.
“When you are 2-0 own, you have to make some changes,” Vann Marwijk said. “We showed a little more courage in the middle of the field so I made those changes based on that. If it was 1-0 it would have been a different story. I love playing 4-3-3 with lots of speed and lots of creativity but we didn’t do enough today on the flanks. We like to play that way and Wesley Sneijder is one of the best No. 10s in the world. We still have a chance to go through, and when you have a chance you have to believe in it.”
Kharkiv will once more host Netherlands as they complete their trio of matches at the Metallist Stadium against Portugal on Saturday, with their hopes of progress dependent on whether Van Marwijk is willing to engineer his own Oranje revolution.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Mario Gomez. The Bayern Munich striker’s rise to international prominence has taken longer than it should have, but he has finally taken his place as rightful heir to Mirsolav Klose’s imperious German goalscoring mantle. Two games, two match-winning contributions for Gomez -clinical finishing at its best.
GERMANY VERDICT: A little more understated than the side that wowed at the 2010 World Cup, but despite not producing the sort of breathtaking football that memorably blew away Argentina, Joachim Low’s team has evolved into a winning machine. Mats Hummels and Holger Badstuber continue to forge a solid defensive partnership, while the dynamism of Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira put Mark van Bommel and Nigel De Jong to shame.
NETHERLANDS VERDICT: With retrospect it is easy to suggest that Huntelaar should have started but it would perhaps be more accurate to suggest his inclusion from the off in the first match against Denmark would have been a greater boon. Van Marwijk exercised tactical caution in both games, but received no reward. Netherlands are a team of attacking talents, and they will have to be unleashed against Portugal and win by two goals if the Dutch are to avoid an early exit.
TABLOID FODDER: Joachim Low revealed in his post-match press conference that Roman Abramovich had visited Germany’s training camp and “shared a laugh” with Bastian Schweinsteiger. The anecdote was part of a response to questions about whether the Bayern Munich captain is over the Champions League final defeat to Chelsea, but will likely set the transfer rumour mill into motion.© ESPN