Same old anxieties cloud over Pearce's new dawn
England 2 Netherlands 3
If he could have those 90 minutes all over again in which to make his case as a viable England manager, Stuart Pearce would surely ask that he did not have to do so against a Netherlands team that included Arjen Robben. There is the blood-and-guts determination of a team managed by a man they used to call “Psycho” and then there is the sheer match-winning brilliance of the Dutch winger.
Leave aside the reality that for now England have no manager, no captain and a tournament in three months' time and just consider the strength in depth of the Netherlands. Then factor in the result last night for England's first Euro 2012 opponents, France – a 2-1 win over Germany in Bremen. This summer's tournament was always a daunting prospect but this was further evidence that the strongest European teams can take it to a level beyond England's best.
Yes, this was an England team without its most valuable asset, Wayne Rooney, but that is exactly how it will be in the first two games of the championship. And there was no better demonstration of the standards of the Dutch than the row that ensued in the post-match press conference when coach Bert van Marwijk was berated for playing two holding midfielders.
It did not matter to the Dutch press that they had inflicted on England their first defeat since November 2010. Nor that Robben had produced two goals that suggested he is – surprise, surprise – back to his best in a tournament year. This is a team that, as Robben said later, is going to Euro 2012 to win it, not just reach the quarter-finals.
Pearce's team might have briefly drawn level from a seemingly hopeless two-goal deficit but the match still ended with the right result, even if the Dutch had to wait until stoppage time to secure it.
It leaves England with the same old anxieties. Pearce is caught in this strange hinterland where he continues to claim that he is capable of taking the team to Euro 2012 but not beyond that, a position that is well-intentioned but only seems to highlight his unsuitability for the job. The side itself, post-Fabio Capello, is still in flux with a new captain last night in Scott Parker and no obvious alternative to the suspended Rooney.
It took the Dutch to remind us how many great players a successful international side needs. Last night it was Robben who stepped up but on other occasions it might be Robin van Persie, not at his best this time, or Wesley Sneijder, good but not outstanding.
What would Harry Redknapp have made of it all? First, he will wonder if he wants the job at all. Then, if he does, whether he dares reverse Pearce's decision to make Parker the captain. Steven Gerrard was always Redknapp's preference but these things have a momentum all of their own and it might just be easier for the next man to keep the status quo.
Gerrard came off after 33 minutes with a tight hamstring, a decision that Pearce described as a "precaution". He departed with that figurative cloud over his head. It had not been a good day. Passed over for the captaincy and played in his less favoured role behind the striker it did make you wonder how long his sometimes tortured relationship with the national team will last.
The two Dutch goals came just before the hour; two thrusts of the blade that demonstrated to England just how a game, a tournament even can be over in the blink of an eye. Until then, much of the game had been conducted in slow-motion with the occasional intervention from Mark van Bommel or Nigel de Jong to liven things up.
Pearce called Van Bommel's job "game-management", others might call it plain cynical. Certainly it worked for the Netherlands. He committed a judicious foul on Micah Richards when he threatened to break and an assault on Parker in conjunction with Dirk Kuyt towards the end of the first half.
In the early stages, Adam Johnson, who began on the right side cutting in on his stronger left foot and later, after the withdrawal of Gerrard, from the left, was the brightest spark. On 26 minutes, the Manchester City winger doubled back twice on De Jong and Joris Mathijsen before he hit a shot that deflected wide off Johnny Heitinga.
Later, Pearce moved Johnson to the left, pushed Ashley Young into the central position that Gerrard had occupied and brought on Daniel Sturridge on the right wing. Sturridge had an immediate impact with a run and cross. He would later miss an excellent chance from Leighton Baines' cross and come off with an injured toe.
The moments of creativity were limited. Parker made two textbook interventions in the first half. The first an important block of Sneijder's shot and then an immaculately timed challenge on Van Persie in the box on 20 minutes. There was no margin for error on that one.
Sadly, there was no Englishman on the pitch who could have done what Robben did on 57 minutes, picking the ball up in his own half from De Jong's tackle and running deep into English territory before beating Joe Hart with a low shot into the corner. Parker chased in vain. Gary Cahill backed off and backed off until Robben was within range.
Conceding that goal was a blow but to do so again so shortly afterwards was disastrous. The substitute Klaas-Jan Huntelaar swept the ball right to Kuyt and thrust himself at the cross, making contact with the ball just a moment before his head collided with Chris Smalling. Huntelaar was out cold before he hit the ground and came round with a lump of turf in his mouth to be led off the pitch with his legs wobbling. Smalling ended up in hospital.
The comeback started when Cahill ran on to Baines' ball, turned Mathijsen and scored. Suddenly it was game on and Young chipped in the second from Phil Jones' pass. That prompted the Dutch to wake up and Robben won them the game with a curled shot from the right that took a deflection. It might have done England a favour – a glorious draw could just have blinded them to some of the fundamental problems that must be solved in the next three months.
Man of match Robben.
Match rating 7/10.
Referee F Brych (Ger).
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