KHARKIV, Ukraine – The Netherlands hardly needed extra motivation heading into Wednesday night’s encounter with Germany at the European Championships. The countries have plenty of footballing history between them – as the saying goes, there’s no such thing as a friendly between these two nations, let alone in a big tournament. More importantly, the Dutch flopped against Denmark in the "group of death" opener and desperately needed all three points. They didn’t get them, losing to Germany 2-1.
If a few members of the team were lagging for whatever reason before the match, they would have been pumped when Portugal scored a late winner to beat Denmark 3-2 in the other Group B match. It meant that no matter what happened on the pitch in a hot Kharkiv, the Oranje couldn’t be eliminated – yet.
And in the early going, the Dutch, as they did against Denmark, pressed, probed and seemed in the mood. Three times within 10 minutes, a ball over the top caught the German defense napping.
However, as the minutes unfolded and no goals came, memories of Saturday’s defeat to the Danes surfaced. The Germans, even more of a contender than the 2010 World Cup finalist when the tournament began, started dominating proceedings, especially for the first 60 or so minutes. If anything, it was almost too easy for Die Mannschaft, and the Netherlands closed Germany’s lead. Proving that a two-goal lead is always tricky (stick or twist?), Germany settled after Robin van Persie’s goal and saw out the game comfortably to reach the quarterfinals.
SUPER MARIO: Germany manager Joachim Low admitted this week he didn’t discount the possibility of tinkering with his lineup, even though Germany downed Portugal 1-0 on Saturday.
One of the men who might have been replaced was striker Mario Gomez, despite his goal. The evergreen Miroslav Klose was waiting in the wings and had scored against the Netherlands in a November friendly. So when Gomez saw his name on the team sheet, what a boost of confidence he must have received. Low was making him the main man.
Armed with that extra confidence, Gomez finished wonderfully on the opener in the 24th minute and beat Maarten Stekelenburg for a second in the 38th. Stekelenburg, who seconds previously made himself big to rob defender Holger Badstuber, helped Gomez by going down too early on the second goal.
Low also hailed Bastian Schweinsteiger last week, so there was never any chance he’d be dropped in the wake of an average outing against the Portuguese. Schweinsteiger said in Tuesday’s prematch news conference that he was confident of rediscovering his form. He just didn’t know when.
It happened Wednesday, as he set up both of Gomez’s goals with pinpoint balls and controlled the midfield.
Gomez, Schweinsteiger and Germany are on the way.
BERT’S CALL: Some Dutch fans will be irate that manager Bert van Marwijk’s only change to his starting lineup was inserting fit-again central defender Joris Mathijsen. Van Persie and two holding midfielders were in the starting 11. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar – who scored for fun during the Netherlands' qualifying campaign -- wasn’t.
You can understand van Marwijk’s thinking. One poor game does not a bad striker make, and even if this is tournament football, where teams are robbed of time, dropping van Persie would have been harsh.
Squandering opportunities in the first half, RvP finally came good by drilling a shot into the corner – with his less favored right foot – in the 73rd minute.
Van Marwijk is on to something, since van Persie also forced Manuel Neuer into a diving save when Huntelaar was on the pitch as a second-half substitute.
Employing two holding midfielders was understandable. This was Germany, and the Dutch needed the extra protection of their back line. But Schweinsteiger had ample time to find Gomez on the goals, time that precisely the holding midfielders should have robbed him of.
On this night it was indeed Mark van Bommel, not Nigel de Jong, who got the hook.
SOFT DEFENSE: Jetro Willems, the youngest-ever player to feature at the Euros, looked shaky after an assured display against Denmark. The left back was repeatedly skinned by Thomas Muller. Given he’s 18 and on the team only because of Erik Pieters’ injury, he’s hardly the player to blame.
What was John Heitinga’s excuse? The Everton man, at fault on the goal Denmark scored, gave away a free kick that began the passage of play on Gomez’s first goal. Then he was turned by the No. 23 that saw Germany score first.
WHAT NOW FOR THE DUTCH? At least the bickering in the Dutch camp will diminish. How’s that, you ask? Van Bommel can have no complaints if he’s dropped against Portugal, Huntelaar surely will start with van Persie, and Rafael van der Vaart will be included, too.
Have van Marwijk and the Dutch left it too late, though? They’re not out of contention to reach the quarterfinals, but there’s no room for error, with even a victory not guaranteeing a spot in the quarterfinals.
London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.