KHARKIV, Ukraine – In a matter of hours, the Netherlands went from serious contenders for the Euro 2012 title to potential first-round flops. Such is the cruel nature of tournament football. If there’s one thing teams can’t afford to do in an opening game, it’s lose. And after the wasteful Dutch were edged 1-0 by a well-prepared, resilient Denmark on a hot night in Ukraine, their chances of progressing to the next stage hang in the balance.
The math is simple: If the Dutch lose to the even more fancied Germans on Wednesday and Denmark beats Portugal, the Oranje and their colorful fans are out of the event at the first hurdle. It’s not an inconceivable scenario given that Denmark did top its qualifying group, which featured none other than Mr. Ronaldo and his fellow Portuguese.
How long, then, before finger pointing and bickering, usually prevalent in the Dutch camp but missing (thus far) in the current squad, break out?
“I’m speechless,” Dutch captain Mark van Bommel told reporters. “Five of us had chances. We hit the post once. So many good opportunities.”
A Dutch reporter at the game had a bad feeling as early as the 20th minute, comparing the early going to Barcelona’s semifinal affair with Chelsea in the Champions League. For all their possession, the Catalans were thwarted and lost the opening leg in London.
The Netherlands went one better in that they created several more clear-cut opportunities and several fell to the right person, Robin van Persie. Who knows? Maybe all the transfer speculation surrounding van Persie has affected the Arsenal striker; he swung and missed when fed beautifully by Wesley Sneijder in the second half in a gaffe that no doubt had Tottenham fans smiling.
Arjen Robben carried over his Champions League blues to Ukraine, too, undone by poor decision-making in the attacking third.
“They missed a lot,” Denmark’s Christian Eriksen, outshone in midfield by Michael Krohn-Dehli, said. “All season they’ve scored a lot of goals. Why it was differently today, I don’t know.”
Such was the desire of Dutch manager Bert van Marwijk to get a leveler that he unusually played van Persie and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar (who top-scored in qualifying) together. When Huntelaar stood on the touchline waiting to enter, most thought van Persie would get the hook, but van Marwijk pushed van Persie into a deeper role and placed the towering Huntelaar up front.
Dutch journalists asked van Marwijk about the move afterward.
“I never said I wasn’t going to do that,” van Marwijk said.
By the time the match ended, most of the Dutch offensive arsenal was on the pitch: van Persie, Robben, Sneijder, Huntelaar and Rafael van der Vaart. Ibrahim Afellay had come off for Dirk Kuyt, although the latter has a tendency to score important goals.
What the Danes lacked in household names, they made up for in work ethic, with Krohn-Dehli burying their only good opportunity.
In the build-up to the game, Danish manager Morten Olsen used the word “luck” extensively. He was still doing that after the game, saying his side benefited from good fortune. A late Dutch penalty appeal was turned down. But, as he put it, “You have to go after the luck.”
The Dutch will be doing just that against Germany. And van Marwijk has decisions to make.
London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.