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Monday, June 23, 2008
Dutch depart with a whimper

Ernst Bouwes

One scene in the quarter-final last Saturday night is enough to illustrate the difference between the start and the end of the tournament for the Dutch. In the 72nd minute Kolodin gives away a free-kick just outside his own box. Several cameras depict the concentration on the face of Wesley Sneijder as he waits for the referee to negotiate the Russian wall to the required distance.

The eyes of the world are on him, while commentators reminisce in their commentary box how the Real Madrid-ace has scored from a similar position in the qualifier against Bulgaria and so many times for his clubs. Curling the ball over the wall in the lower left corner of the goal is his trademark. The Russian keeper Akinfeev has already moved to the other side, which increases his chances. Like a high jumper Sneijder knows exactly from experience how many steps he has to take and at which speed to find the perfect mix between the tempo of the ball and the curve.

The referee blows his whistle. Sneijder's brain is sending commands to the muscles in his legs to start moving. In that fraction of a second the eyes of the former Ajax-player notice something strange. His team-mate Robin van Persie hacks the ball unceremoniously into the stand and returns to his position, somewhere undefined on the right flank, where he has created his own Bermuda Triangle for Dutch possession of the ball.

Sneijder is rooted on his spot, just outside the box, fuming, considering whether he can still catch the night train into Germany from the Basel Hauptbahnhof if he leaves the stadium immediately. It takes him more than a handful of seconds to regain his calm and amble into the already crowded midfield.

It is the preliminary episode of a frustrating night for the man who was about to become the star of the tournament, but would end the campaign shouting abuse to everyone around him, seemingly the last one of his team who cared. His team-mates had mostly faded away and resigned themselves to an early exit.

When, at 20.45 local and Swiss time, Holland kicked off their quarter-final the names on the team sheet were the same as those that had featured so heavily in the nightmares of the Italians and the French. These same eleven had whirled around the World Cup finalists of 2006 and were the early pacemakers of the tournament. After a week of rest these famous successful bodies returned on millions of television screens all around Europe and probably far beyond. Within minutes however it became clear that all those viewers were watching a team without its recently acquired winning mentality. The mood was gone.

As the nervous Russian defence were passing the ball around in their own half in the opening minutes, they kept an anxious eye on their opponents. Would they come charging in? It might lead to a razor-sharp counter-attack but just as likely to the start of a panic which would spread like wildfire over the young Russian team for the rest of the game.

To everyone's surprise the Dutch only started pressuring on the halfway line instead of almost into the opponent's penalty box, like they had done in the first two games. And it soon proved to be half-hearted, while their passing became more inaccurate by the minute. Russia soon got into the game, always had a man over in midfield and found it quite easy to play up to their lone striker Pavlyuchenko. On the other side Ruud van Nistelrooy could only watch, jealously, as everything he tried went horrible wrong. For most of the night the Dutch were one or more steps behind the Russians.

It made the defeat inevitable. The listlessness of the team was not overcome by bringing in Robin van Persie at half-time. Within minutes Van Basten also had to replace the clueless Khalid Boulahrouz after he collected a card and an injury, but who was out of place anyway.

Guus Hiddink had cunningly left him free at right-back, which was widely anticipated on every talk-show before the game, as Boula was not the man to start the Dutch attack. Instead of some switches in his team Marco van Basten sat idly by, watching the unimaginative and slow build-up from his team.

Sneijder and Van der Vaart were cut off, while Van Nistelrooy disappeared completely. Some of the free-kicks posed difficulties, resulting in the equalizer, but this was only a delay of the execution. The Russians played the kind of Dutch football, the Dutch can only dream of. With a minimal amount of passes they created the biggest chances, only for an excellent Edwin van der Sar to prevent a disaster.

It was ironic that Ruud van Nistelrooy's pirouette, a week earlier the glorious symbol of Dutch total football against the French, was the lumbering start of a speedy counter-attack that lead to the second Russian goal. At that point most of his team-mates were already drifting about the pitch, looking for their breath or touching painful hamstrings while they cursed their team-mate for scoring and enhancing the ordeal.

Suddenly playing a midweek crunch game to stay in the tournament seemed much more beneficial to fitness than fielding the second string against Romania as the Russians seemed to gain stamina instead of tire during the extra-time. We do know that the Dutch have trained during the week as Arjen Robben managed to get injured during a session and was out for the game.

Most coaches take their team to the training ground to physically strengthen the side, but over this tournament Van Basten actually lost a couple of his men during training, like Ryan Babel and Arjen Robben (twice), while the team spirit and eagerness was gone as well. Without it Holland are just another ordinary team.

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