The Netherlands crashed out of Euro 2012 in Kharkiv last night after being played off the pitch by Portugal, led by a Cristiano Ronaldo who finally found his scoring touch at this tournament. The beaten World Cup finalists two years ago depart from Ukraine in the most ignominious fashion, the first side to lose all three of their games.
They offered little save for an impressive early goal, and the match ended in depressingly predictable fashion, with their players arguing among themselves and tackling progressively more petulantly. Portugal took complete control of the midfield and on another night their marauding counter-attacks could have yielded several more goals.
"It's the same side as two years ago apart from a couple of positions," claimed under-fire coach Bert van Marwijk. "We tried to make the team faster and younger and better. I knew it wasn't going to be easy repeating what we did two years ago. The players who usually make a difference for us didn't reach that level."
Negotiating the "Group of Death", which contained four of the best 10 football sides in the world if Fifa's rankings are to be believed, was never going to be easy, and was made harder for the Netherlands when they lost the opening game to Denmark, before wilting in the Kharkiv heat against a well-organised Germany.
In a last throw of the dice last night in a match that the Dutch had to win by two clear goals, Van Marwijk finally heeded the cries to play a more attacking side, and picked both Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Rafael van der Vaart, in place of Ibrahim Afellay and the more defensive Mark van Bommel.
While they were in the more enviable position of already having three points, Portugal still had a job to do, however, and the early minutes suggested that it was not going to be easy. The Dutch had most of the early possession, and when they went ahead in the 11th minute it became a possibility that their sombre looks may have indicated a severe sense of purpose rather than a petulant resignation. Arjen Robben, after a run down the right that threatened to run out of steam, this time decided to pass rather than take on the extra defender, laying the ball off to Van der Vaart, who took a touch, glanced up, and dispatched a curling shot past Rui Patricio from a few yards outside the penalty area.
In the minutes after the Dutch goal, Portugal spurned no less than four excellent chances as the game opened up, with Ronaldo ending a mazy run with a low shot that clipped the outside of the post and Helder Postiga failing to convert a one-on-one with the keeper that arose after appalling defending from Gregory van der Wiel at right-back. Adding Portuguese profligacy to the news that Germany had taken the lead against Denmark gave a sense that this was perhaps going to be the Netherlands' night after all.
It was not. Portugal equalised when Joao Pereira's ball split the Dutch defence and allowed Ronaldo to score his first goal of the tournament, and from then on, the game was perhaps the most one-sided encounter of Euro 2012 so far, with the Portuguese slicing through the flimsy Dutch midfield with ease.
The chances kept coming, and to add to it, the Dutch began to disintegrate in the way that only the Dutch can. Van Marwijk was pacing around the technical area doing a passable impression of Basil Fawlty, and when he shouted something at Robben as the Dutch were defending a corner, his player shouted back at his manager in disgust. Wesley Sneijder, meanwhile, seemed intent on picking a fight with half of his team-mates.
In the second half, there was more of the same from Portugal. Yet another of Ronaldo's runs down the left ended with a smart cross for Nani, who somehow managed to shoot straight at Maarten Stekelenburg instead of scoring. It did not matter much, as just a few minutes later the roles were reversed. This time, a speedy counter-attack saw Ronaldo on the receiving end of a perfectly measured cross from Nani, and the Portugual captain made no such mistake.
There were only eight minutes remaining as the Netherlands' first real chance of the second half came, when Van der Vaart unleashed another of his curling shots, this time hitting the post. By that stage, it hardly mattered. As injury time approached, Ronaldo finished off another run with a shot that also clipped the post, when a hat-trick would perhaps have been fair reward for the best individual performance of the tournament so far.
Portugal will feel confident of progressing through a quarter-final encounter with the Czech Republic but coach Paulo Bento preferred not to concentrate on Ronaldo's performance. "The individual effort of players is not important," he said, "Today we can talk about brilliance, it was the best game we have played here."
Meanwhile Van Marwijk has to consider his position. Although he has a contract until 2016, he refused to answer questions about his future last night.
Scorers: Portugal: Ronaldo 28, 74. Netherlands: Van der Vaart 11
Subs: Portugal Oliveira 5 (Postiga, 64), Custodio (Meireles, 72), Rolando (Nani, 87). Netherlands Afellay 6 (Willems, 67).
Booked: Portugal Pereira. Netherlands Willems, Van Persie.
Man of the match Ronaldo. Match rating 7/10.
Possession: Portugal 42%. Netherlands 58%.
Attempts on target: Portugal 8. Netherlands 3.
Referee N Rizzoli (It). Attendance 38,633.
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- Cristiano Ronaldo
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- Rafael Van Der Vaart
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