In a tournament lacking for goals and marked by teams putting up six-man defensive walls in front of their keepers, Holland and Italy delivered the goods. OK, mainly Holland. The Dutch ripped Italy, scoring more goals in one game than Italy conceded in eight matches at World Cup 2006 (Italy's matches against Australia, Germany, and France all went the extra 30 minutes) and as many goals as the Dutch themselves scored in four matches at the same tournament. While most teams' use of the 4-2-3-1 has been evidence of tactical conservatism, Marco van Basten looks like a genius for moving away from the traditional Dutch 4-3-3. Wesley Sneijder, Rafael van der Vaart (or, as Der Wife giggled to herself, van der Fart), and Dirk Kujt looked dangerous when their instructions didn't require them to stick to a wing. Their interplay with Ruud van Nistlerooy was excellent, leading to their first goal and a host of additional chances.
Speaking of the first goal, I have nothing but good things to say about ESPN's coverage of the tournament, which has been outstanding, except for the following: none of ESPN's analysts figured out why Ruud goal was not offside. Fortunately, the readers of the Guardian's minute-by-minute report chimed in with the correct ruling:
Peepety-peep! And that, amidst much contention over the offside rule, is the first half. Quite a few of you have been whipping out your Fifa rule books to bang the world to rights on this one, and yet we still have no consensus. The line: "a player is in an offside position if he is nearer to his opponents' goal line than the second last opponent", which many of you have cited, is neither here nor there, because players regularly receive treatment directly behind the goal and are not considered active.
More clarifications Stuart Lewis has dug out Law 11, which states that: "If a defending player steps behind his own goal line in order to place an opponent in an offside position, the referee shall allow play to continue and caution the defender for deliberately leaving the ﬁeld of play without the referee's permission when the ball is next out of play." I'm not sure you can say that applies here, though Stuart - Panucci was injured, and crawled a long way off the pitch - actually quite a long time before the ball came back in to Van Nistelrooy to receive treatment. As I've suggested earlier, plenty of players will remain behind the goal in such instances for several minutes to receive treatment, so if this law is to be applied, how long does the defender have to remain there before he becomes inactive?
Yet more Fifa rulebook fun Eric Calhoun cites law 11.11 in the rulebook - under advice to referees. "A defender who leaves the field during the course of play and does not immediately return must still be considered in determining where the second to last defender is for the purpose of judging which attackers are in an offside position," he says. "Such a defender is considered to be on the touch line or goal line closest to his or her off-field position. A defender who leaves the field with the referee's permission (and who thus requires the referee's permission to return) is not included in determining offside position." To be fair, that does seem pretty categorical. Either way you can be absolutely certain that this story's going to run and run in Italy ...
This situation also came up in the first leg of the Arsenal-Liverpool Champions League quarterfinal. The decision was mooted by Nicklas Bendtner clearing off of Liverpool's goal line, but that match also involved a sequence in which an attacker was (or should have been) kept onside by a defender over the touchline. I have to say that it makes sense for the rule to be the way that it is. A defensive team should not be rewarded for a player writhing around behind the touch line. The fact that it was Italy, the kings of drama, who were penalized for Christian Panucci taking his sweet time to get back into the fray, is doubly entertaining.
If synchronized gesticulating were an Olympic sport, the Italians would be massive favorites.
For me, the man of the match was Gio van Bronckhorst. I was never a huge fan of Gio, but he played his rear end off last night. He was the most reliable defensively of the members of the Dutch back line and he got forward to start the move for the second goal and finish the third. Before going onto a pitch, every Dutch left back from now to the end of time should watch Gio clearing off his own line and then tearing up the left wing to send in the cross that ended with Sneijder's near post finish past Buffon.
One thought on Italy: what exactly was Roberto Donadoni doing starting the AC Milan midfield that just finished fifth in Serie A and was overrun by Arsenal in the Champions League? That was a "Bobby Cox in the Keith Lockhart era" decision if there ever was one.
It's odd to pick on anything after a 3-0 win over the reigning world champions in a major tournament on a neutral field, but the match last night didn't exactly put to rest the fears that the Dutch have a somewhat average back line. Italy created a bevy of good chances and only missed out on scoring a couple goals by virtue of bad finishing an excellent goalkeeping by Edwin van der Sar. Van der Sar put on a clinic on proper rebound control that Petr Cech would do well to watch. The central defense pairing of Ooijer and Mathijsen was alright and you can't argue with a clean sheet, but they are anything but airtight. If the Dutch are going to win this tournament, then they are going to have to do so the same way that Barcelona rode a defense that prominently featured Presas Oleguer and Rafa Marquez to a European title: dominating possession and scoring goals.
One other thought on the game: the most emotionally satisfying aspect of the Dutch performance yesterday is that it will change my feelings about the painful departure from the Euro 2000. It's hard to describe how painful the loss to Italy on penalties in 2000 was for the Dutch. The term "national trauma" has been bandied about. For me personally, the game was easily the most difficult defeat to process in the 20 years that I've been rooting for the Netherlands. Now, whenever I see the highlights of all of those missed penalties, I'll think of Netherlands 3 Italy 0 and I'll smile...unless this turns out to be a springboard for a devastating loss to the Germans on penalties in the final.
Other thoughts on the tournament:
1. Major kudos to ESPN for its coverage. We've gone from Dave O'Brien to Andy Gray in the commentary booth. You think that's an upgrade? Also, the 360 technology that ESPN uses key plays is outstanding. They did a great job in the studio of illustrating how Cristiano Ronaldo's presence on the left wing created the space in the middle for Pepe to score Portugal's opener on Saturday.
2. I know that Petr Cech hasn't been quite the same since his head injury, but how does a head injury cause a keeper to lose the ability to control or direct a rebound? Cech was outstanding in every aspect of the game on Saturday except for the fact that he kept spilling shots into the paths of attackers. He's inviting opponents to start peppering his frame with shots.
3. Austria didn't look half bad for a team whose citizens had started a petition to forfeit their spot in the tournament.
4. Leaving aside the whole historical context that causes everyone to hate the Germans, this version of Die Nationalmannschaft is fairly rootable. The Germans play more attacking football than just about anyone else in the tournament. They're one of the few sides that doesn't play two defensive midfielders. Instead, they find a spot for a third striker on the left side of their midfield. They have Jens Lehmann in goal, which is always good for entertainment when he screams at his defenders for allowing the ball to come within 40 meters of the German net. They have two excellent wingbacks who get forward to create opportunities. Their central defense pairing is good, but not so good that they don't give up chances and therefore create some excitement. Finally, they have Michael Ballack, who really deserves a major trophy at this point in his career. (I will pretend that I never made this statement if the Dutch or Spanish make the final.)
5. That whole "France can't score without Zidane" truism just keeps picking up steam, doesn't it?