Total football from the men in orange. Total embarrassment for Les Bleus. They do say that Arjen Robben saves his best moments for the big tournaments and on the evidence of a stunning substitute's cameo from the former Chelsea man, this one has been worth waiting for.
There is no team that had proved itself more emphatically in Euro 2008 thus far than Marco van Basten's Dutch team who have dispatched Italy and France within the space of five days to win Group C and a place in the quarter-finals. Robben was outstanding last night, scoring once and embodying the counter-attacking spirit of the Dutch while Dirk Kuyt, Robin van Persie and Wesley Sneijder scored the rest of the Netherlands' goals. They are the team to beat.
On Tuesday, France and Italy meet in Zurich for a game that they hope will decide the second qualifying place in the group, but the intriguing aspect of this group is that Romania will make it to the quarter-finals regardless of that result if they beat the Dutch in Berne. Given that the Netherlands may have to face one of their Group C opponents again in the semi-finals it would be much to their advantage if it was the Romanians who came through in second place. How hard will the Oranje be trying on Tuesday?
The draw against Romania in France's previous group game convinced Raymond Domenech to drop not one but both of the strikers who struggled through that turgid game. It is not a bad trick to be able to call up Thierry Henry from the bench, the striker had been out with a broken foot but he came back last night in place of Karim Benzema and Nicolas Anelka.
Instead of that pair Domenech switched to a system with two orthodox wingers, Sidney Govou on one side and Florent Malouda. Patrice Evra started instead of Eric Abidal.
However, within nine minutes, the Netherlands had taken the lead and whatever Domenech had in mind did not seem to be working. Dirk Kuyt was given time and space to head home a corner that he had won from Lilian Thuram. It was an embarrassment to the French that Malouda just allowed Kuyt to manoeuvre him out the way and head the ball in without having to jump for it.
France lurched around in the opening stages, their rhythm disrupted by the same sort of Dutch energy that had seen for Italy five days earlier. Henry was isolated and French hopes rested upon Franck Ribéry.
France looked dangerous every time they got Ribéry on the ball which was not enough from their point of view. Otherwise they were disconnected. The Netherlands made a great deal more of their comparatively modest array of talent.
Henry did not get a decent effort in on goal until three minutes before the break when he turned away from Blackburn's Andre Ooijer and hit a shot that rose up and wide of Edwin Van der Sar's post. The goalkeeper was almost wrong-footed by a shot from Govou in the 23rd minute but stopped it with his leg. It was one of the few times the French had created a chance. France were the faster, more durable team. Claude Makelele was fortunate to get away with only a booking when he lashed out at Rafael van der Vaart, first with an arm and then an elbow.
You had to admire the nerve of the Dutch who, one goal ahead at half-time, substituted their holding midfielder Engelaar for Robben who does not have a defensive instinct in his body.
France should have been level soon after the start of the half. Henry was aggrieved at not having been given a penalty when his shot from close range struck the hand of Ooijer. It was a fabulous block by the veteran centre-half and so instinctive he could not have had a moment to do anything devious – the ball struck his arm but not through any design of his own. Henry had no one else to blame for his shocking miss shortly afterwards. France won a couple of headers in midfield and Henry broke through the middle in the hope that someone would find him which Malouda did with an overhead kick. The former Arsenal man was in acres of space with a ball that was bouncing around knee height. He elected to lob Van der Sar and never came close to flighting the ball under the bar and in.
It was a meagre effort, and a few minutes later, Van Persie, the man Henry always seemed to resent in his final season at Arsenal, scored the goal that said this French team were really in trouble. The best work was done by Van Nistelrooy who showed such deftness of touch to keep the ball in play, and then Robben whose charge down the wing took the French completely by surprise. Van Persie met his cross firmly and although Gregory Coupet got a strong hand on it he could not prevent it dribbling over the line.
Off came Malouda and on came St Etienne's Bafetimbi Gomis who Newcastle are understood to like, although presumably if he keeps miscontrolling the ball as he did last night. Then a break through for France. Willy Sagnol got further down the wing than Malouda had ever managed and stroked in a beautiful cross that Henry had only to apply the faintest of touches to steer into the far corner of Van der Sar's goal.
What happened next will haunt French football for some years to come. Within seconds of the kick-off, the Netherlands had built a passing movement that allowed Schneider to play in Robben down the left channel. He took the ball to what seemed an impossibly wide position to the left of Coupet's goal and held off the dreadfully half-hearted tackle from Thuram. His shot was fast and unexpected and beat Coupet completely. Sneijder added a brilliant fourth in injury-time to complete the rout.
Netherlands (4-2-3-1): Van Der Sar (Manchester United); Boulahrouz (Seville), Ooijer (Blackburn), Mathijsen (Hamburg), Van Bronckhorst (Feyenoord); De Jong (Hamburg) Engelaar (Twente); Kuyt (Liverpool) Van Der Vaart (Hamburg), Sneijder (Real Madrid); Van Nistelrooy (Real Madrid). Substitutes: Robben for Engelaar (h-t), Van Persie for Kuyt (55)
France (4-2-3-1): Coupet (Lyons); Sagnol (Bayern Munich), Thuram (Barcelona), Evra (Manchester United); Toulalan (Lyons), Makelele (Chelsea); Govou (Lyons), Ribery (Bayern Munich), Malouda (Chelsea); Henry (Barcelona). Substitutes: Govou for Alenlka (75), Maloudoa for Gormis (60)
Referee: H Fandel (Germany).
Booked: Netherlands Ooijer France Makelele, Toulalan.
Man of the match: Robben.
Final games: Tuesday 17 June
Netherlands v Romania (Berne) (7.45); France v Italy (Zurich) (7.45)
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