Despite two losses, the much-hyped Netherlands can advance to the quarterfinals at the European Championship. It’ll need to beat Portugal by at least two goals Sunday in Kharkiv, Ukraine, and hope for some help from Germany.
Still, the last-ditch scenario on the final match day isn’t what most everyone envisioned.
“We never thought this would happen – to have zero points and to have to wait to see what happens in the other game,” captain Mark van Bommel said in Saturday’s news conference.
For the Portuguese, after a 1-0 loss to the Germans, a late goal from Silvestre Varela against Denmark renewed their hopes. As a member of the press corps put it Wednesday, Portugal won – even with Cristiano Ronaldo in the lineup.
Ronaldo didn’t do himself any favors by criticizing Lionel Messi afterward.
Hey, Cristiano, it wasn’t Messi taunting you Wednesday, but the Danish fans. Looks like they got to you – exactly what they wanted.
What's on the line?
Both teams can’t advance, which means one impressive streak is certain to end. The Netherlands and Portugal have reached the knockout stages at the Euros six and four consecutive times, respectively. Further, in one scenario, if Denmark beats Germany and Portugal doesn’t win, Ronaldo and Robin van Persie are both going home.
And one wonders if the Dutch do exit, whether manager Bert van Marwijk will be looking for another job. Going from World Cup finalist to early elimination at the Euros is a worrying development.
Style and tactics
The statistics prove what we all know about the Dutch – they like to attack. They’ve created a plethora of opportunities yet have only one goal to show for it. Now needing a goal rush, the Dutch will thus have to press forward against Portugal responsibly. Van Marwijk tore into the defense this week and will expect the back four to be more compact.
“We know that we have to win 2-0, so the tactics we choose will be based on that,” Van Marwijk said.
Portugal played for a draw against Germany and ended up losing, timid and cautious until Germany scored late. The approach needed to change against Denmark and did. How manager Paulo Bento sets up against the Dutch will be intriguing.
“In every game there’s a strategy the players have to implement,” Bento said in a news conference. “All the players have a number of functions. We have tried to have a balance between defense and attack.”
Players to watch
For the Netherlands: Robin van Persie, Wesley Sneijder, Rafael van der Vaart
One goal can do a world of good for a striker, and van Persie’s confidence – probably a little low following the loss to Denmark – had to rise when he belted a right-foot shot past Manuel Neuer on Wednesday. Two brilliant balls by Sneijder against Denmark deserved better. He’s completed eight of 21 crosses; the rest of the team is 2-for-24. Van der Vaart has been pining for a start, and he’ll get a chance to show what he can do since van Marwijk surely won’t start two holding midfielders.
Or will he? Van Bommel’s presence at the news conference would normally mean he’s starting. Will van Bommel and Nigel de Jong feature, will it be only van Bommel or was van Marwijk bluffing?
“You can make your own conclusions,” van Marwijk said to a Dutch reporter who wondered about van Bommel’s status.
For Portugal: Ronaldo, Helder Postiga, Pepe
Oh, Cristiano. Ronaldo missed twice when in alone on Danish keeper Stephan Andersen, fortunate that Varela bailed him out. He’s netted a mere three times in his past 15 games at major tournaments. While Ronaldo flopped, a player who usually flops, Postiga, justified his inclusion on the team by getting on the score sheet. Pepe, not one for the purists, scored with a header against Denmark and hit the crossbar versus Germany. However, all three goals conceded by Portugal this tournament have come via headers, meaning Pepe and Bruno Alves must tighten up at the back, and crosses must be cut out on the flanks.
What we can expect?
First, plenty of skill. Ronaldo, Nani, van Persie, Sneijder, Arjen Robben and Klaas Jan-Huntelaar ensure that. Some of the football should be brilliant to watch. In terms of the pattern, the longer the game remains scoreless, the more the Oranje will become desperate, leading to precisely what van Marwijk doesn’t want – space for Ronaldo and teammates on the counter.
“We will try to counterattack better,” Bento said.
Heading in, Portugal has the mental edge over the Netherlands, sporting a 6-1-3 record head to head. The Netherlands’ lone victory came in Rotterdam in 1992.
It could get heated. When they met at the 2006 World Cup, a 1-0 Portugal win, there were 16 bookings and four red cards.
This game will be filled with goals. The Netherlands to win in a 3-2 thriller, but it won’t be enough to advance.
London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.