Virtuoso Elia helps stuttering Dutch find their sense of rhythm
It is an understanding that sometimes important victories do not automatically accumulate once it has been established which team has superior gifts
You wouldn't have known from the mind-numbing drone of the vuvuzela horns – its tone presumably wouldn't have changed if an oversized Rembrandt had appeared in the cold blue sky – but the Netherlands may have found an authentic Young Master.
Well, youngish. Three years ago, at the age of 20, Eljero Elia was languishing in the margins of the Dutch league. Now a star in Hamburg he may just be an authentic link with some of the more dazzling creativity of his nation's football past.
Johan Cruyff, by some distance the best player in the history of the Dutch game, raised his eyebrows when Elia turned an unusually dour Denmark into a near rabble when he came on as a 67th-minute substitute. In the league table of encouragement that may ultimately rank a lot higher than the trophy that he still shines from time to time with some ferocity ... The Johan Cruyff Young Dutch Footballer of the Year.
The late arrival of Elia, especially in the absence through lingering injury of Arjen Robben, was something of a mystery in view of his immediate impact. The Dutch coach Bert van Marwijk may not have wanted to draw too much early attention to a player who plainly has a chance of making a considerable name for himself at this World Cup.
Operating along the left, which was just one of Cruyff's launching areas for the most brilliant dismemberment of rival teams, Elia ran with beautiful poise and penetration. It was a sharp lesson for the watching Ryan Babel, another young Dutchman of superb natural ability whose own best achievements for Liverpool have tended to come in moments of isolated virtuosity. Elia, by comparison, looks like a player who knows how to apply consistent hurt to a vulnerable defence.
The one of Denmark was already in some difficulties before Elia arrived, having conceded a comic own goal when an otherwise impressive Daniel Agger could not but help Simon Poulsen's attempted clearance into his own net. Elia though demanded surrender on his own unforgiving terms. He raced beyond the Danish cover to send a superb shot against the post. Dirk Kuyt, he of the relentless spirit and unstopping legs, was there to knock in the loose ball.
The Dutch hierarchy presented it all as the kind of measured march into action you expect of a team of great talent who are being given something of a shout for a place in the shake up. "It was a good start to our campaign," said the coach, and no doubt it was as far as it went. Fabio Capello might have exchanged one of his art treasures – well, perhaps not – for such a stride into the tournament, but there was still something nagging about hints that some Dutch players believe that victory is not so much a goal as a right whenever they run on the field.
Elia shattered that impression in a mere 23 minutes and if it is a little premature – if not completely barking – to shoot him vaguely into the category of his most distinguished admirer yesterday, there was no doubt that he might just bring to a chronically under-achieving team something rather than mere exceptional ability.
It is an understanding that sometimes important victories do not automatically accumulate once it has been established which team has the more superior gifts.
Another spectator, Robben, has always shown an impressive understanding that authentic achievement tends to accompany heightened effort. In his pomp at Chelsea, Robben was asked if he was the new Cruyff. No, he said, he wouldn't attain that status if he played for another 100 years.
Cruyff was unique in Dutch football and it is a status unlikely to be threatened by any number of heirs apparent. However, also without serious comparison is the nation's ability to squander an astonishing yield of talent from a population of just 16 million.
There were times yesterday when that bleak distinction was hovering once again. However, Elia dispelled it with an urgency and a skill that suggested that the Netherlands' next opponents, Japan and Cameroon, might be in for a more perilous ride than Denmark experienced for most of yesterday's match.
Robben is expected to return against the Japanese and it's hard to imagine that Elia will not be asked to provide the other half of a wide threat of formidable proportions. Wesley Sneijder can also be relied upon to maintain the tempo of a game which did so much to deliver the Champions League to Internazionale. He was almost invariably the most relevant Dutch presence when his team lifted their game, which was not that often until the arrival of Eljero Elia.
Eljero claims to be named for the jazz singer Al Jarreau. It certainly seemed entirely appropriate yesterday. This was a footballer operating in perfect rhythm. Who knows, he might just put the Netherlands in the mood.
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