England had a new manager in his interview blazer – and a new captain guaranteed to please a majority of fans happy to trade the remnants of the golden generation that never happened for the odd salt-of-the-earth professional.
Unfortunately – at least for a while – the Dutch brought something beyond the remit of two new and extremely worthy appointees. It was the capacity to dig briefly back into their national team's history and find a distinctly superior game.
This placed an inevitable limit on the horizons of Stuart Pearce and his nominated field leader Scott Parker. What we had, after all, was another phase of Waiting for Harry and the truth is that there are only so many times the English football public can stomach another round of fresh resolutions and good intentions.
Pearce, who knows, may just inherit the European Championship finals assignment abandoned by Fabio Capello, if White Hart Lane affairs delay the new anointed one Redknapp – or he decides that making a new national team is one thing while turning upside down an entire football culture is quite another.
The one that belongs to the Netherlands – and has taken them to three World Cup finals and the European title since England won the big one here 46 years ago – is of course one that even in the most unpromising of times is never too far from the surface.
Here last night Arjen Robben, most spectacularly, and Wesley Sneijder almost every time he touched the ball, unearthed it so effortlessly that it might have been a slap across the face of the deeply committed Pearce and the impassioned Parker. The best of the Dutchmen emerged after Steven Gerrard was obliged to leave the field with a troublesome hamstring before half-time – but the truth is that the only England player with the experience and the gravitas of Sneijder and Robben was never more than a peripheral figure.
Robben, by comparison, shattered England when he raced from the Dutch side of the centre circle and built quite unbreakable momentum. By the time he drew a bead on Joe Hart's goal the score was inevitable and the brief new world of Pearce and Parker was close to toppling off its axis. Within two minutes, Robin van Persie's replacement Klaas-Jan Huntelaar headed home a cross from Dirk Kuyt with especially massive conviction.
The prospect, on this night of what was supposed to be the latest piece of earnest retrenchment by a broken England, was suddenly of rather dire humiliation. This would have been sad in view of some spirited and not unstylish work by such as Ashley Young, Adam Johnson and Daniel Sturridge but at least this fate was avoided by a show of late spirit which brought a degree of respectability, and almost redemption.
Goals from Gary Cahill and Young brought England level but from the Dutch there was another moment of killing brilliance. It came from Robben, who is supposed to be suffering a crisis of form and even basic self-belief in Munich. Sneijder, one of the outstanding performers in the last World Cup and long seen as the potential rescuer of Manchester United's midfield, is also supposed to be something of a broken force but he too made something of a joke of claims that he is no longer one of the game's most influential figures.
He may be labouring like the rest of the Internazionale team but here he found a mood and an expression that was often touching the sublime. His movement carried great authority and his wit was often on a much higher level than anything that England were quite able to produce. The temporary manager did have his moments and in that last rush towards the hope of equality Pearce must have guessed that here were some indications of a new resolve. Unfortunately, the Dutch edge was not so easily swept away.
It rose up at the end with an almost mocking force which was sobering enough when you remembered that recent Dutch performances have persuaded many that they have slipped an extremely long way below holders Spain and the fast rising Germany.
At best the Dutch are rated third favourites now. Where this puts the challenge of a new, reformed England is something which can only bring new question marks against the belief that England are just one universally approved appointment away from solving most of their serious problems.
It is an idea that in the end was seriously buffeted last night. If it happens, Harry's Brave New World probably has a few storms in store.
- More about:
- Gary Cahill
- Klaas Jan Huntelaar
- Liverpool FC
- Manchester City
- Premier League
- Stephen Carter
- Steven Gerrard
- The Netherlands
- UEFA Champions League
- Wesley Sneijder