He's good. However, he was also this good at the start of Euro '04 and then the Portuguese managed to shut him down in the semifinal. Dutch opponents are going to be committing players to their defensive right sides for the rest of the tournament, which will make it imperative that Robin van Persie play well on the Dutch right. Van Persie played well today, as he assisted on the goal and generally created problems on the right. His free kick in the second half was also perfect; it was a likely goal that no one could touch. The likely defensive strategies of Dutch opponents will also put pressure on Sneijder, van Bommel, and van der Vaart (if healthy) to generate offense through the middle today.
This was definitely a different Dutch side, consistent with what I've been reading about Marco van Basten. They did have the lionshare of possession, especially in the first half, but they scored their goal on a counter after they had sucked S&M forward and then they defended well with the lead. There were certainly some tense moments, especially on a couple occasions when the Dutch let balls bounce around in the penalty area, but Serbia never had a great chance to equalize and the Dutch marking was sound, especially on set pieces. Contrast the way the Dutch played with a 1-0 lead in this game with the way the Dutch played with a 2-0 lead against the Czech Republic in Euro '04. (I suppose you can also contrast the offensive talent on the Czech side with that of the Serbs.) Three points are all that matters and the Dutch got them and earned them by creating the majority of the good chances. Thus, they're a win against the Ivory Coast from making the game with Argentina irrelevant. The first 20 minutes against the Ivory Coast will be critical. The Elephants have their backs against the wall and will come out with all guns blazing. If the Dutch absorb that and hit on the counter, they'll be fine. Eboue versus Robben will be interesting. Any Premiership fans want to give a scouting report on how that match-up has played out before? And speaking of the Premiership, Didier Drogba faced his strike partner Hernan Crespo in his last game, he'll face Chelsea winger Arjen Robben in his second game, and he'll face Chelsea reject Mateja Kezman in his third game. Chelsea have truly cornered the market on name talent.
Other thoughts on the first few days of the Weltmeister:
1. To ESPN and ABC, congrats. You've screwed this up, too. The mistakes in commentary and graphics have been too numerous too count. Arjen Robben is 22, not 27. Becks' first name is David, not Mike. I'm pretty sure that Mexico and Iran haven't played yet, so showing a possession stat for them was a guess that you didn't want to make. And why the hell can't they show the national anthems, which are the perfect way to get the blood flowing before the game? And why is the color so much better on Univision than ABC and ESPN2? And why do they have to do the coverage as if the viewers have never seen a soccer game before? I like the JP Dellacamera/John Harkes team, but everyone else have left a lot to be desired. Like bad college football announcers, they have certain angles to plug - Ivory Coast have a civil war, David Beckham is famous and good-looking, etc. - and they just beat those angles to death in lieu of providing insight on what I'm seeing.
2. Forgive me for saying this, but I'm rooting for Mexico. Just like I root for all the SEC teams in the bowl games, I want CONCACAF to look good. I like Rafa Marquez, despite his personal vendetta against Cobi Jones. And politically speaking, the xenophobia being hurled around by the Tancredos and O'Reillys and Dobbs of the country has made me like Mexico more. To stereotype very broadly, Mexicans come to this country, work their asses off, keep our prices for food and construction low, and pay payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare benefits that they're never going to receive. Yes, our culture will be tilted to a Latino tinge and frankly, I like that.
3. England, uh, yeah. I stand by all of my remarks about them. Sven Goran Eriksson is the Lloyd Carr of international football. If Sven were a football coach, he too would restrict his offense and get all tingly about the idea of punting with a lead. If Lloyd coached the Three Lions, he too would pull off his strikers with 30 minutes to go in a 1-0 game and take the air out of the ball, thus trusting a narrow lead to a team whose keeper thinks that palming the ball to his own penalty spot is a great idea.
4. Juan Roman Riquelme...after one game, I'm totally wrong about him not being a good fit on a team full of stars. He was the difference against the Ivory Coast. It's great fun to watch a guy pass the ball like that, he's a relic from a by-gone era when vision and passing were more important than workrate and physical ability. Argentina look like the best team so far. Just wait until Leo Messi is on the receiving end of those passes.