Friday, June 16, 2006

"Pass, the Dutchy, on the left-wing side..."

Job done. The Gottlieb-Daimler-Stadion Stuttgart has been effectively fumigated.
(Hopefully that was originally done when the stadium was renamed from the Adolf Hitler Arena, anyway).
After the French-Swiss snoreathon of 72 hours earlier, only a twin outbreak of end-of-season Spurs-style sickness could have stopped Holland and the Ivory Coast serving up anything other than a breath of fresh air here tonight.
An all together more invigorating evening was guaranteed with the arrival of the Dutch supporters in such force, in such vivid colours – that is, colour.
Every England matchday is a full-on flag day, with fans bringing more banners than you’d find on the Incredible Hulk’s family tree.
But with Holland, only the simplest of dress codes applies – wear what you like, as long as it’s orange.
Not a faint, flimsy, namby-pamby-pastel orange, either, but the most garish blaze which turns the terraces into what resembles a genetically-modified poppyfield gone slightly, strangely wrong.
The players, while wearing the same, were not quite so dashing, save for a brutal double-blow in five minutes of the first half.
First, Robin van Persie punished his Arsenal team-mate Kolo Toure for bundling him over on the edge of the Ivorian penalty area.
Van Persie himself swiped the free-kick into Jean-Jacques Tizie’s top right-hand corner – yet again this tournament, the new football swerving and spinning and rising and dipping along the way.
Four minutes later, with not yet half-an-hour on the clock, the other Dutch winger Arjen Robben came skipping inside from the left.
Apparently only reluctantly lending the ball to Marc van Bommel, he made the most of the midfielders half-return ball, half-stumble to cleverly reverse pass into the path of Ruud van Nistelrooy – with inevitable, net-bulging results.
Van Nistelrooy seemed overcome with relief more than anything at scoring his first World Cup goal, sinking to the turf and hollering joyfully to the sky – or perhaps towards Manchester.
To suddenly find themselves two goals down again, for the second successive game, was tough on the Ivory Coast who had started positively again.
Again, Didier Drogba was leading the line powerfully, surprisingly selflessly – and again, amazingly ready to rise from the ground quickly rather than writhe in supposed agony.
Didier Zokora and Yaya Toure, behind the single striker and bunch of support strikers, belied such apparently defensive roles by proving more artist than artisan.
Zokora, especially, was unfortunate to step inside only to see his 25-yard shot cannon off the corner of crossbar and post, and bounce safely away.
But one of the two Kones, the more creative Bakary, swung them suddenly back into the game after picking up an innocuous pass from Zokora.
In a run reminiscent of Michael Owen’s against Argentina in 1998, he swept his way past the Dutch defence before lofting the ball powerfully past Edwin Van Der Sar.
Is it just me, or is every goal this World Cup a stunner?
Well, maybe not Gamarra’s own goal against England – but still…
When the goal of the tournament nominations are in, even such belters as Steve Gerrard’s last night may struggle to be remembered.
After such an end-to-end, pulsating but high-quality first half, the second surprisingly lost a little pace and excitement.
The Ivorians, needing at least a draw to keep their World Cup alive, kept on trying to drive forward.
Drogba, especially, was desperate to dredge up an equaliser, after a harsh booking for appearing to stick a late foot in on Van Der Sar – he is now suspended from the final group game.
But then again, he was perhaps lucky the referee did not notice his flying elbow which sent Mathijsen sprawling.
Bakary Kone’s replacement by Aruna Dindane seemed a little baffling, with his side needing a goal.
Kone had been one of those troubling Dutch defenders the most, despite the steady sturdiness of Mathijsen and Ooijer (the latter not to be confused with the similar-sounding song by Chas and Dave).
Dindane, in contrast, repeatedly failed to force his way past an Argentinian defender during his cameo last Sunday, and remained consistent at least today.
The Lens winger has been linked with West Brom in the past – perhaps a more suitable level than World Cup football, on this evidence.
The Ivory Coast, thought of as the best hope among the Africans and the World Cup debutantes this year, stepped up the pressure in the final minutes.
They forced a quickfire series of corners and free-kicks in a lengthy injury-time, with the referee perhaps reluctant to end such an entertaining game.
But as against Argentina – and as with Ghana against Italy – their finishing was just too wayward to reward their build-up play.
Ivory Coast had 24 shots, to Holland’s 17 – but thinking back, van der Sar was not seriously tested nearly enough.
Well might manager Henri Michel have broken a corner bar of his dug-out in frustration, after Drogba’s downhard header across a congested box was chested off the line by Van Persie.
When the final whistle finally sounded, the jubilant Dutch players took an age to be dragged from the pitch, dancing along to Go West and Amarillo as only distraught Bakary Kone stayed, statue-like in the beaten team’s dug-out.
Three groups have now sent a pair of teams safely through, with a round of games still to play.
That’s a shame – the more last-day drama, the better (as long as it’s not England involved).
But even if both Holland and Argentina rest a few players, and ease down a gear or two next Wednesday, there should be enough quality – and pride – in abundance to produce more pleasure.
Even if both have now survived the “Group Of Death” with not even a flesh wound.
Hopefully the attractive Ivory Coast players, rather than the rather dirty Serbian side, get to go home with a consolation win when they meet in Munich.


Mike said...

Shame about the Ivory Coast, I really fancied them to do well, but despite their good performances they were unlucky to be in the toughest group. Eboue really needs to cut out the diving and time wasting, especially when his team are 2-1 down with only a few minutes to go.

Well done for writing the word Arsenal without an asterisk, it can be done!

Aidan said...

Damn, how did that one slip through...?

Good to see Ghana put on such a thrilling display today, though. Shame most of their team managed to pick up suspensions for the USA game...

Essien yet again looked a completely different player to himself in a Chelsea shirt. Robben's Dutch performances seem similarly liberated, though not quite so pronounced as the Essien difference.