Netherlands 1 Serbia & Montenegro 0: Robben gives cheer to orange hordes

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The Independent Football

The Dutch had travelled south in their thousands, turning this old bastion of East German football into an orange bowl, hoping for a performance which would roll back the years to another World Cup, another era. Back to 1974 when "Total Football" captivated West Germany but this old ground, being the wrong side of the border, lay empty.

Their dreams were not entirely realised, even if Marco van Basten's interesting side showed enough potential to suggest they could enjoy another good tournament. But they did see Arjen Robben roll back the months, back to those heady days when his arrival at Stamford Bridge seemed to presage the flowering of a thrilling Chelsea side as well as an efficient one.

Robben appeared to lose his way last season, his form hampered by injury, controversy and suspension, but his punctuated club campaign may prove a blessing for his country for he is fit and very eager. Serbia & Montenegro had no answer to his speed, trickery and desire. His first marker was substituted, another defender booked for fouling him, and all were stretched by the 22-year-old flyer.

This time he did not just win marks for artistic merit either. He also scored the 18th-minute match-winner. "I'm happy with the way I played," Robben said. "I know I can play even better but, especially in the second half, it was so hot. It seemed like we were playing football in the Sahara. It was suffocating on the field. So we had to choose our moments and let the ball do the work."

"It was not easy but the most important thing was to start with a win," added Van Basten. The Dutch coach had stuck to his 4-3-3 system despite a shortage of natural wingers forcing left-footed Robin van Persie on to the right wing. He did not seem happy but did, on one of many forays inside, make the goal with a neat flick to release Robben.

Goran Gavrancic tugged in vain at his shirt as Robben sped away before sliding the ball past Dragoslav Jevric. Having conceded one goal in 10 qualifiers, the Serbian defence had been breached within 20 minutes in their first match of the finals.

They could have conceded several more. Robben had four further decent goal attempts and Van Persie went close twice. The return after suspension of Manchester United's Nemanja Vidic is much needed for Serbia & Montenegro's Friday match with Argentina.

The Netherlands' failure to convert possession into goals meant Ilija Petkovic's side never lost hope and they did create chances.

With the match still goalless Predrag Djordevic delivered a cross which both Mateja Kezman and Savo Milosevic went for. It will surprise no Premiership regular that neither man converted. Milosevic later wasted two further openings and he was replaced at the break by the giant Nikola Zigic. The striker, variously described as 6ft 8in to 6ft 10in (presumably no one can reach that high with a tape measure) is one of the few people Peter Crouch must look up to. However, an inability to provide decent crosses meant that the Dutch goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar was only once worried, when Portsmouth's Ognjen Koroman, a substitute, stretched him 19 minutes from time.

Koroman later criticised his own omission saying: "I don't know quite why we had to be so defensive. I am baffled with the coach's decision to keep me on the bench." Petkovic refused to discuss his selection or tactics and claimed: "We did not deserve to lose because the Netherlands did not outplay us. Nor did they create any clear-cut chances apart from the goal, which was also a fairly predictable move."

This refusal to see reality must have stirred a few ghosts. The World Cup stadium is built within the bowl of the old arena which, in Communist times, used to hold 100,000 supporters and play host to Lokomotiv Leipzig.

Yesterday that era must have seemed as distant to those fans who still follow Lokomotiv, now reformed and playing in Division 11 after a financial collapse, as the days in which this city rang to the music of Bach and the words of Goethe. The words sounding out around Augustusplatz last night were "Oranje, Oranje".

It may become a familiar hymn.

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