Toni's star show suggests Italy are ready for action

Netherlands 1 Italy 3
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Pre-match and both the Dutch and Italians had been obsessing about the powers of Marco van Basten. Post-match and it was the striker of legend, the charismatic coach who has propelled the Netherlands through to the next World Cup, while building a new, young team who was doing the eulogising.

The name on his lips was Luca Toni, who checked Dutch expectations while firing those of his own country. "Toni has everything you could want in a striker," Van Basten said. "He's got speed, strength, is good in the air and is very clever." It was praise which, coming from the most complete centre-forward of his generation, left even the most seasoned of Italian journalists tripping.

Granted Van Basten, after his serene exploits, has that effect anyway on a nation convinced that he will become the next coach of Milan after the World Cup. But Van Basten's praise was genuine and it was significant that the only time he rose from his seat during this effervescent friendly encounter was to congratulate Toni after the 28-year-old was substituted.

By then Toni had plunged uncertainty into Dutch hearts, with the visitors scoring three times in eight minutes, either side of half-time, to halt Van Basten's record of unbeaten matches at 16. It is a record that has led the Dutch to second in the world rankings as well as fuelling belief that Van Basten could do no wrong in his first coaching job.

He did little wrong against the Italians but, unfortunately, the 4-3-3 Van Basten is committed to depends on both Ruud Van Nistelrooy and Arjen Robben also being fit.

Neither were and although 18-year-old replacement Ryan Babel scored, he and Romeo Castelen were quick but unsatisfactory replacements.

"Italy have more experience than us," Van Basten admitted. "Nesta and Cannavaro are very difficult to break down and their front three are very well balanced."

Between them, Toni - and the lethal Milan striker Alberto Gilardino have scored 11 times in a year. Toni, with 13 goals in 11 Serie A games, is Europe's most productive striker. His achievements are all the more impressive because - as his age indicates - he has been around for some time, spending much of it in Serie B, before blossoming.

But the World Cup could be his and Italy look genuine contenders.

Goals: Babel (38) 1-0; Gilardino (41) 1-1; Vlaar (og, 45) 1-2; Toni (49) 1-3.

Netherlands (4-3-3): Van der Sar (Manchester United); Kromkamp (Villarreal), Vlaar, Mathijsen (both AZ Alkmaar), Van Bronckhorst (Barcelona); Van der Vaart (Hamburg); Landzaat (AZ), Cocu (PSV Eindhoven); Castelen, Kuyt (both Feyenoord), Babel (Ajax). Substitutes used: Timmer (AZ) for Van der Sar, h-t; Ooijer (PSV) for Vlaar, 60; De Jong (Ajax) for Kromkamp, 61; Vennegoor of Hesselink (PSV) for Babel, 82; Boateng (Middlesbrough) for Cocu, 87.

Italy (4-3-3): Abbiati (Juventus); Zaccardo (Palermo), Nesta (Milan), Cannavaro (Juventus), Grosso (Palermo); Camoranesi (Juventus), Pirlo, Gattuso; Gilardino (all Milan), Toni (Fiorentina), Del Piero (Juventus). Subsitutes used: De Rossi (Roma) for Gilardino, 60; Iaquinta (Udinese) for Toni, 68; Diana (Sampdoria) for Camoranesi, 78; Barone (Palermo) for Pirlo, 87.

Referee: V Ivanov (Russia).

Man of the match: Toni

Attendance: 49,000.